My Life in Paintings

Here’s my 2018 CBC contest non-fiction entry – didn’t make the cut but here it is for you to read and decide for yourself whether it’s a worthy essay.  Enjoy 🙂


MY LIFE IN PAINTINGS

There’s a painting on an easel in my living room right now.  It’s half finished.  A little boy is splashing a skipping rope in puddles in our driveway and the splashes are flying up into the air.  I love the photo it comes from, and that young fellow is my son fifteen years ago.  I started the painting last fall for a contest then life got in the way.  It hurts to continue right now and that’s why the brush got put down.  My son is grown and living elsewhere.  I will finish it though, regardless of whether he’s around or not.  I am his mother after all, and nothing can diminish or erase the fact that I have a son I love beyond measure because I am his mother, no matter how old or distant he is.

 

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I have a painting in my spare room that is leaning on the wall, sitting on a shelf.  It’s big – 18×24 – and it’s a portrait of my mother.  It’s pretty much finished but it hasn’t got a frame.  Someday soon I plan to put a frame on it; it’s expensive so that purchase has fallen to the bottom of the list for years.  This painting I made for my mom at her request – she liked a photo that was taken of her while she was visiting a cousin in B.C.

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My mom loves to travel.  I was going to say loved but I won’t because she’s still with us.  She’s almost 99 and is in a nursing home, a small shadow of herself brightened by occasional glimmers of memory.  This painting though, she liked it except for one thing:  her chin is too long.  So here it is in my house, many years after she asked and long since forgotten.  She was right. Her chin is a little too long so I will fix that and frame it and put it on my wall.  It kind of makes me sad to work on it at the moment so I haven’t yet.  But I will.  I promise.  It’s also the last portrait I completed, mainly because I haven’t been asked again but also because I discovered it’s hard to make a portrait perfect enough to suit other people.

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I say this because when I was single I used to visit my young nephews (I had two then) fairly frequently and I took a lot of pictures at that time.  One photo I really liked was my sister in a chair with the baby in her arms and the oldest at her feet reaching up.  Kind of Madonna and Child if you will.  So I did an acrylic painting of that photo.  It took me a few months and then I had it framed in glass and wood.  At the time I thought I’d done a good job and gave it to her for Christmas.  She didn’t like how I made her legs look so that was that.  I have no idea what happened to it.  The thing is that’s probably the best portrait I’ve done and you know, it was a sweet moment in time.  I hope someday she comes across it and realizes that – if she still has it after several moves and all this time.

In my basement I have a painting that I call 26.  It is the only self-portrait I’ve done and I was newly married when I did that.  It’s me in a summer dress with a pattern I loved, sitting in a hanging swing in the gazebo of my ex-husband’s mother’s cottage in New Brunswick.  What’s not in the picture is the guitar on the floor – I had gone there for a bit of space and to play my guitar which I did a lot in those days.  I used to write songs and work out the chords for favourite tunes then I’d record them and give copies to people who wanted one which at the time was pretty much only my dad.

26

I appreciated the colour of the trees and the wood and my dress so for fun I put my 35mm camera on a beam and took a few timed exposures.  One photo stood out so I painted it.  This one I put on show in Mississauga once.  The only comment I got was “Why is this called 26?”

It lives in my basement because it’s big and it’s me and maybe if I had a larger house I’d find a wall to put it on but for right now it feels a little self-aggrandizing to hang it somewhere prominent.  Regardless, I like it.  I think I looked my best around that age.  It’s a nice reminder.

I had one painting come back to me.  This one doesn’t have people in it but it does have trees.  It’s quite large and it is of an entrance way to Apfeldoorn Het Loo castle at the end of a long archway of trees – the play of shadow and light and the arching branches were striking, and this is one photo I have from the time when my aunt took me on a National Art Centre trip to Holland and Belgium.  Auntie traveled often and this was the only time she took me on one of her trips.  She usually took my mother but for this one she knew I’d appreciate the outstanding artwork in the Netherlands. Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists. I was in my early 20’s and I had had a horrible year.

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A dear friend died suddenly and a few months later I came down with walking pneumonia so between the two I was emotionally and physically knocked flat.  Auntie thought this would make me happy and she was also pleased that I was old enough to travel with her.  I gladly went and the trip was just what I needed; it was wonderful to spend all this time with her getting to know her in an environment experiencing something we both had in common:  a love of art.

When we came home I made her a photo album of our trip and for Christmas I gave her the framed painting of Apfeldoorn.  She proudly hung it over her bed – she collected original artwork and displayed it all over her apartment so for me that meant a lot that she liked it that much.  That painting stayed there for a few years but it was also at this time her health started declining and she only went on a few trips after the one with me.

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She died in 2000, and sometime after that I was given back the photo album and the painting with the mat still there but oddly, the outer frame is missing.  That’s okay, it still looks good.  It spent 10 years over the top of a stairway in my house in Arnprior, and now faces a door in my little bungalow in Fredericton.  It reminds me of a person who was important to me, and of a time of my life just before I got married.

Just as important though are the sketches of paintings not yet done.  One is a sketch I did of my daughter as a baby and I have to laugh because its very existence is much like an essay I started writing back then about life as a new mother: it ends mid-sentence after about three paragraphs.  I haven’t tried to finish it because you know what?  That’s what being a new mother is all about, this not enough time to do anything.

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I also have a sketch of Grammie-great.  I promised to paint it for my daughter someday because Grammie-great (her great-grandmother on her father’s side) simply adored her.   She died when my daughter was four and I think she’s her guardian angel. I will do this one soon, now that she is grown.

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I’ve fallen behind in my paintings of people: my dad, my daughter, my spouse.  I’m just looking for the right moment in time and the right inspiration to come.  I may be old and white-haired by that time but hey, that’s what retirement is for isn’t it?  I think George Bush Senior would agree.

My latest printed photo album ends in 2004.  With the advent of digital cameras I now literally have nearly a decade and a half of thousands of images that if I don’t print them or something they will be lost in time.  I’m not alone in this certainly.  A painting can last forever though.  Why not put the really special moments on canvas in a way that maybe will long outlast me?  They might wind up in a dump somewhere, sure, but I hope when the day comes and I’m not here, that for at least one or two somebody will say: “Hey, I like this.  Let’s put it up on the wall.  Who did it?”

Carleton Park at Dusk

“Oh, it was Great-great-grandma.  Cool, eh?”

(c) Catherine M. Harris, 2018.  All rights reserved.

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Cathi’s Comments for December 31, 2017


I’m a day late writing this, mainly because a big part of me wasn’t sure I even wanted to post it. But then I thought, why shouldn’t I? If I go back to my very first Cathi’s Comments there’s a whole lot of water under the bridge, so much soul searching not only in the time when I posted almost every day, but also I’m constantly doing that in my essays and poetry and in a more abstract way in my fiction. So yes of course I should post my thoughts on this god-forsaken year.

I’ve been depressed since late last summer and I’m doing my best to keep my head enough above water to keep functioning and on really good days, be laughing but it isn’t easy. I try to look always at the possibilities of things but again its hard when the outcomes all seem kind of dark. When that silver lining is just aluminum foil, what do you do? For me I look at the causes then figure out what, if anything, I can do to make stuff better and if I can’t, what to do to get out of the situation. I’ve got a lot situations right now.

In short they are: family, money, work, perception of self, future of my career. Kinda heavy stuff. So let’s see: it’s a long story but one year I made enough because of one-time payments (one of which I paid back at gross for over two years) put me in a higher tax bracket. I owed taxes but in a few years this would go down by itself because I always get tax back. This August I found out I was losing 30% of my net pay for almost a year. Add to that the acting position I’d been doing for over 2 years was ended and I went back down two levels at the end of October. Somewhere in all of this there are still bills to be paid and I really don’t want to or even know how to get a part time job here. Jim tried for 3 years for a part time job before he gave up. I’m not sure what I’m going to do so I’m just putting my faith in the fact there’s always something that saves me just before I go over the brink. I just have to find it.

Family: it’s no secret there’s people in my family who won’t have anything to do with me. Why? Because I don’t fit the mould, and they won’t listen to my explanations of why my life has gone the way it has. I don’t live up to their expectations, and they didn’t listen to me so they’ve made up stuff that unfortunately is now being fed to other people which I find out about of course. If any of them read my essays or my comments they’d know what they think is wrong, but they don’t. Unfortunately I find myself in another situation where I’m blamed again for things that are misinterpretations. Rather than listen to my explanations, it’s discounted and erroneous stuff is believed. And it hurts to be in that situation. Nevertheless, I won’t apologize for falsehoods and for decisions I made for reasons that people don’t know the whole story of. I also am very good at keeping secrets. Where it’s important I won’t be telling the whole story even if it hurts me. So there we are. I can only be who I am, live my life the way I see fit, and if people really want to lay down the sword and actually come talk to me and then believe me when I tell my truth then maybe there’ll be some hope. I’m not holding my breath. It’s just that this year someone I didn’t expect did the same thing to me and so yes, I’m at a loss because if they aren’t willing to understand the truth as I lived it, well…. That one came out of left field because I honestly thought they knew
me better than that. So I can only let the ache die down and carry on.

Work and perception of self are kind of tied in together though perception of self is also a part of my family issues. Here’s the thing: I’m 55. I have officially 36 years service in my employment though it’s actually a little longer. Now I could – and did if you remember 5 years ago – retire. Thing is, as much as I want to, I can’t. I still have bills to pay that go back to when my ex and I split up 16 years ago if you can believe that. It’s almost paid off but it’s still there. I can’t retire really until all my bills are paid off and I have enough to live on for at least a year, preferably a year and a half. That’s how long it’s taking to get pensions these days, not everyone but many and I have no doubt I’d be one of the ones waiting and living on nothing. For me to pay off stuff I need to get paid properly. I also need not to be paying back pay at gross or back taxes at insane percentages. I need to be in a job that pays consistently at the level I have been for the better part of the last 8 years but for some reason can’t be it officially. A couple of years ago I was told “hey you came in third (for a promotion that had 2 positions) but you’ll have lots of acting. It’s all just pensionable time, you have 4 years to go don’t you?” (this is paraphrasing but the words are the same). To me that was age discrimination but to nobody else I’ve complained to it is. I was recently put on a waiting list for a course I needed for my certification after someone told me they told the person organizing the course I didn’t need it because I had 35 years service. It was one of the last ones I did need for the certification. I complained. At least that one got corrected and I took the course. Then came the news that the new way of hiring is based on pools, and the pools were “upping the bar” – you had to have a degree, a diploma or certification. Gone was the high school with x years of relevant experience. Last summer I was an expert. Now I’m nothing. So if I wanted to apply for my job at the moment, I couldn’t. So much for 36 years of my life devoted to what I do. This hurts. A lot. I have some things to still do for certification but it’s hard when my heart isn’t in it, knowing they don’t really want me. Maybe it’s the depression talking but that’s how it feels.

The thing is, 55 isn’t old. Most places you can’t retire before 65. Many people of my age range who would like to retire and even are allowed to at full pension simply can’t because life got really expensive 30 years ago and it hasn’t stopped. We’re the people who were crazy enough to buy houses at 20% interest rates, who saw credit cards go up to ridiculous levels and wages get frozen so we used them, especially when our marriages went down the tubes. So yeah, freedom 55 is a pipe dream for an awful lot of people. And most of us reject the notion that 55 is old, especially when we’re healthy. My mom is 98 years old. Don’t put me out to pasture yet, in many ways I’m still just starting.

I am pleased with myself in that I did submit to the CBC Creative Non-Fiction contest – I didn’t win but it feels awfully good have submitted. This can be read at mrssauga.wordpress.com under Essays. I also submitted to the CBC Short Story contest for the first time in a few years. I don’t expect to win but I will say the same disclaimer I do with all my fiction: it’s fiction, if you want the truth read my essays; and, my mother is wonderful person who has been a strength in my life, the character in the story is not my mother 🙂 You’ll get to read it whenever it’s rejected or if they accept it, when it’s published.

I’ve also been painting (in the middle of a painting called Ben After The Rain), and playing my guitar again. I’m still working on other writing and yes, I keep saying this but I do intend to update this web site to something more relevant to me now.

Here’s hoping that 2018 is the year I reverse all this nonsense and my money and career problems are solved. I can dream can’t I? I wish every one the very best and I truly hope that you live your life with compassion, show empathy for others and maybe just try to put yourself in someone’s footsteps before you react. Things are never as they seem. Remember that.

À la prochaine,

Cathi …..

The Mystery of Heart

Well, another creative non-fiction entry to the CBC contest is a non-starter, so here’s my latest essay for your reading enjoyment. A reminder, this is covered by the creative common license for reading purposes only. Any republication or transmission or use of any kind other than a link to this post must be with permission of the author only. Copyright Catherine M. Harris 2014.

The Mystery of Heart

There was a workplace accident today. It made the news. At first I thought, oh, that’s sad, but such things happen. And then the update said the 22 year old man was recovering well and my heart caught in my throat. I quickly texted the young man I thought of, and yes, he was fine. For a few moments prior I worried for my daughter, who, still studying for a final exam and 16 long driving hours away from him could be scared out of her mind if she heard the news report. Were I her, I’d have been. He is her first, maybe only – who knows? – great love, and I remembered from the ashes of a long ago time saying to the first love of my life, “Please don’t die, don’t die on me.”

Looking back it’s a bit silly I know, but I just loved him that much. I loved him so much it hurt, and I loved him so much that the thought of losing him terrified me more than anything I could possibly think of. I was sixteen at the time and when my great love became a little less stellar three years later and had come to the point of who cares, I looked at the void in my heart and pondered – wrongly it turned out – on the fact that my one chance was wasted when I was so young. I have plans to live to a grand old age; older than my great-grandfather who was still swinging his cane at cars in his nineties.

My father said to me once as I moaned my singlehood, “Have children if you like but for God’s sake don’t get married.” He was a man of black humour and his comments still make me giggle. My mother on the other hand told me on my wedding day when I was twenty-six that marriage is an experience everyone should have, even if it doesn’t work out. The Minister intoned, “Let those whom God hath thrown asunder, let no man join together” and well, maybe they knew something. Regardless of its outcome, this love of my life was my best friend, still is one of my best friends and is the father of my children.

In my darkest days after I left the marriage with two young ones and a bucketload of “if onlys” and after I had long ago decided there was no hope for me ever again, 9-11 happened. I worked very long hours dealing with a Canadian aspect of it when a far away writer friend who lived 50 miles from ground zero and worked for a radio station asked if he could call me so we could just talk. We talked for two hours until the telephone receiver burned on my ear. The sound of his voice made my heart leap; and in that 500 mile, two country divide I found the spark of love again. I was thankful for the reminder that maybe there was hope for me yet, because at that time there wasn’t any possibility he could be anything but a far away friend.

Fate has a way of making things happen when they’re meant to be. I really believe that. Thirteen years later my foreign friend is my common-law spouse; has been for twelve of them. The how that came to be is too long to tell right now but I can say that when we first got to meet in person – quite amazingly actually – we both knew that this was special. There was a magic I can’t explain, and with the passing of the years and many days both good and not-so, we know that for this moment in our lives we are where and with whom we should be.

It takes courage to put your faith and future into someone elses’ hands. Some say it’s easy just to walk away but that isn’t true. It takes perhaps less courage to pledge yourself to another than to say good bye. Your life implodes in ways you don’t expect. Friends and family can disappear. Grudges are held, accusations thrown. And in it all, there’s you. Picking up the pieces, puzzling together a new tapesty of a life which is hard when you can’t see all the parts yet. It’s lonely and not a little scary. Friends may or may not return, family doesn’t always forgive you. That’s just how it goes.

In my era of refinding myself after my marriage dissolved, I turned to an old family mystery. My cane-swinging great-grandfather had a wife and three children, one of whom was my grandfather. When the children were very young their mother went to the States and never came back. Great-grandfather years later asked if she wanted to see her now adult children but she turned him down apparently saying she had a new family. The shame and scandal of this hundred year old divorce became a project for me. I would find out what happened to her and maybe a glimmer of why.

For that I began my ancestral tree, joined lists, scrolled through births and deaths and baptisms, all the stuff of life we leave behind. After several years I finally found the answer. The first hint was the death of a baby we hadn’t known about. The second was a marriage of one of her sisters to an American man a few months before, and the third, the death of her mother very shortly before the baby’s demise. Could it be that post-partum depression, mourning for two and perhaps missing her closest confidante could have sent her away? It was the late 19th century, so it was certainly possible. From my viewpoint in this millennium, I wonder would she be thought of any differently today?

One of my lists provided the answer. She did indeed live with her married sister, worked at a nearby factory and a few years later married someone who also worked there. They lied about their ages, but her parents names were the same and her birth place was right. She listed her status as single on the marriage license. Back then I guess they had to take your word for it. They bought a house and had boarders. I haven’t found any children from this marriage – perhaps she couldn’t have any more. Regardless, they were married for over twenty years and the last I’ve found of her was a phone directory with her name circled and a date. Great-grandma, I want to say I think I understand and I certainly forgive you. Your children turned out very well, and your husband remarried and had a couple more children.

There’s one thing I tell anyone who asks about life decisions. It is: follow your heart. You never know what the next moment will bring or how long you have. And if that heart pulls you 16 hours from home or twelve and another country away take the chance. In the end, the sadness of never knowing what could have been may well haunt you more than the mistakes you make.

We live in a time of safety with warning messages plastered over everything with such words of wisdom like “may cause fire” on a lighter, and we are without a doubt a very judgmental society; just spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook and you’ll see that. The thing is, had I played it safe and married my philandering first love I wouldn’t have my wonderful children and I wouldn’t be sharing my life with a very caring man in a city far from home.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating marrying a wreck of a person just because they make something flitter in you. I am saying though that what others think is best for you often times isn’t. When you know it’s right, do what’s right for you. Like my mother said, even if doesn’t work out, it is still worth it. A life well loved is a life well lived indeed.