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THE PAINTING CIRCLE


My wife is off painting with her friends in an old farmhouse kitchen. They talk more than paint, she tells me. There's a leisurely lunchtime break; they share memories of raising their children. They move about in slow motion in the slanted afternoon sunlight and dab a canvas with a half-stroke of paint and stand back. They welcome advice from the others, and often will revise by painting over the undesirable shade of yellow or red and continue on. It's relaxing work, and the friendship they have developed is deeply reassuring. They trust one another and will bring vegetables from their gardens to share; one woman brings apples from her family's vast orchards. The fields outside the windows roll away in slow heaves of dark grass. The woods start just beyond these clearings. They don't paint the world as it is; they paint their emotions about the world. Their fondness for a simpler past is uppermost in their imaginations, and so the barns are not dark and troubling reminders of a dying dairy economy. They are bright and sun-bleached, and sunflowers stand about with drooping necks, as if the world had started the day before.

You can imagine children's voices in the depths of such barns; their cries of joy come through the silence and out into the bee-humming daylight. But the paint falls short of arousing such cries and laughter. The kids are grown up and live in cities near or far from here. They bring their own kids for Christmas holidays, and there is something faintly sad about how one's own children become parents and take on the burdens of parenting. The daughters may smile and brush back a stray hair from their eyes when lectured to about putting away leftovers for another meal. Paint smoothes over the tension of such moments. The women, now grandmothers, cannot suppress a desire to be mothers again, to tell what they know to be the truth about saving up, mending a pillow case, holding back from the temptation to buy new clothes when the old ones still do. But the nagging tone of voice is eased into a sigh by the application of some cadmium white at the corner of a table, as if sunshine had spilled down out of a jar of honey and ended in a tiny pout of gold on the table's rim.

The women take turns being the elder and handing out sage wisdom to the others. It's part of the structure of the game they play with one another. It helps to slip off the weight of being older and careworn, someone who raised the kids, did all of nature's bidding, and now wishes to be young again herself. So a question is posed -- where to do you buy yarn in town? What's a good price for getting the house painted, or the fence mended? Someone will know and will let her voice fill with a certain carefully nuanced confidence, like a dab of brown paint to darken the too-bright silver one has run in a thin line down a window frame. The others listen, holding a brush in the air until the thought is formed, and then nod and go on. Maybe someone knows a better man who did work for her the summer before; he might be the one to consult if the first man is too busy. Everyone wants to say that's a good suggestion, but it isn't necessary. It's more important to let this moment disappear and another opportunity arise in which the role of elder may be assumed, however momentarily.

Pain may hover over the flowers my wife is painting; she might be missing her grandchildren in that moment, and the flowers, nondescript, undefined, are trapped in a blue vase on a ledge. They seem to say to her that they want to play chess with her, or go out to the yard and shout and jump up and down. But the flowers are unable to lift off the surface of her canvas; they are pinned down by time, by distance, by the inability to keep together families that scattter on the wind. No one wants to say at such a moment that her flowers need some bright little distraction, a rogue blossom, a bud just about to split open, to reassert the power of nature to create out of the most unpromising hours of early afternoon. But the flowers are not alive yet. She has let go a tiny secret of her heart, her longings, and hopes someone will be sensitive enough to advise her to dab more yellow into the shadows behind the vase.

In another painting, the hill descends painfully into the dark, but the brush refuses to say what that darkness may mean. Could it be the surgery her husband has undergone a month before, to remove a benign tumor from his head? It's not that the crisis was life-threatening, but that the tough sinews of reality are beginning to fray, and that the ligatures and cartilage by which the body is enclosed are not doing their job. The hill meanders toward the shadows, large purplish swatches of color that spread their thin, glistening highlights over the harsh green grass. It is as much as she will say about her fears of growing old, of becoming frail. Down that descent of grassy hill lies some distressing truth about mortality, a nursing home nestled among a forest of thin new trees, a boring expanse of asphalt for the staff to park their cars on. The hill falls away from the music of creation; only the wind moves in the branches and will soon begin to tug at the handsome jade-colored leaves of the maples. You do not want to take the path that wanders away from the sunny kitchen where the women are working. But there's no need to worry. The canvas is not telling all one knows; it has its limits of emotional frankness, and unless you are a Rembrandt or a Corot, a half-crazed Van Gogh, you can stop your brush by the tiniest restraint and stay within the halo of one's confidence.

A fence suddenly appears where none was intended. But the logic of the composition has made room for it, and there it goes, paling by paling, in slightly pebbled dark red, which the brush slashes in narrow strips. A hedge is part of the confusion of feelings and overlaps the fence like some child's uncombed hair. It is important for the painter not to deny the will of nature in this moment; the hedge is both a boundary and the voice of anarchy in an otherwise tidy yard. Just like the child, who squirms under the hairbrush and is wriggling free to play with the other kids knocking on the screen door. You cannot escape the past, which lies piled up like mountains on the seeming emptiness of the moment. The wilderness of one's life has vanished into the past, and leaves only these slight traces of feeling lingering at the edges of sight. The brush trembles before committing itself to raw canvas, a moment of ignorance about to be articulated into a veiled truth.

Little by little, language has replaced the dangers of uncharted openness. A sky is not really sky until clouds are laid over it, and trees reach up like beseeching hands to grasp the weakening sunlight. You know that you have ventured into the intimacy of another woman's heart when you behold the trouble she has gone to to keep the sky from expanding. A bird composed of two slightly off-kilter black wings moves like a darning needle over the abysses of space. The moon is somewhere under the horizon, rising slowly on its turtle-like legs to reach heaven. The brush has more paint on its bristles but it retreats from saying any more. The afternoon has enfolded itself in a gold ribbon, and is about to be put away. The women talk less, and try to catch up with each other by painting in more structures -- a shed on one side, bathed in grayish light; a wheelbarrow set among weeds at the gaping door of the cow barn; a bicycle gleaming and useless as it leans against the dry, splintery wood of the barn. One must hasten one's decisions, and make sure there is some rhyme to the assembled details, the rebus of memory. But like a shy love letter, it will only say so much about the truth of feeling. One fears to reveal too much, even among such good friends. The canvas is passive and willing to record as much as each woman dares to say about herself. But the the risks of confession are such that even the boldest among them will stop short of finishing a single sentence lying there in the wet paint.

It is time for compliments, and they come quickly and generously. Everyone crowds around the gaunt and modest lines of a porch, with its door ajar and the curtain hanging down to separate inner and outer reality. The burnt sienna shadow captures perfectly the mood of the house, its secrets, its perilous interiors of an old stove, a long gleaming wooden floor leading to the living room, with its heavy furniture and ponderous fireplace. The women understand what this short hand representationalism is really about. It's like some tiny Freudian slip got out, and was allowed to express a hidden truth, but only in its spare outline. The porch aches to be young again, to be freighted with children's voices, to be charged with the energy of crisis and unpredictability.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen