We love sharing our epic 2 mile downhill sled run with gleeful kiddos and jolly adults. Forty adventurers young and old giggled and screamed their way down our mountain again and again. Momma Nature offered blue sky, sunshine and stellar views, we contributed shuttle rides up (1000 foot elevation gain). My studio a warming hut/party place complete with hot chocolate, warm soup, yummy treats. What better way to enjoy New Year’s day? [embed]https://www.facebook.com/amberjeanart/videos/10155266832299021/[/embed]
Two Thanksgiving dinners were shared with my mother in the warm embrace of Raymond's family (which honestly feels like less than a year ago). But lordy the last Thanksgiving with mom was TWO years ago (last year I celebrated Thanksgiving in Bhutan...!) Grief induces a weird time warp. Intensely vivid memories play with weighty emotions. I needed another totally different Thanksgiving holiday experience. We found it:
Rocky took this photo of me Thanksgiving afternoon at the "Kicking Mule Saloon" - one of several buildings restored and recreated into an imaginative western ghost town beneath the Tobacco Root Mountains. The ghost town was conceived and created by Kat and Rocky - two lovely warm-hearted inspiring people. The wooden boardwalk western "Main Street" sits as a full-of-character embellishment between their home and Rocky's studio. We were lucky to be able to spend the holiday talking art, life, survival and adventure at their awe-inspiring home. Kat prepared a scrumptious traditional dinner.
Rocky's studio is one of my favorite places to refuel with "art juice." I've admired his work for decades:
[embed]https://youtu.be/jECnJkiX6VQ[/embed] I was in the stands near the fence when Raymond got tossed (and tossed again). Third bull, first night of the 3-day Roughrider Finals. Out of more than 60 rides only three bulls were covered (ridden for a full 8 seconds). I didn’t take the footage. I could see Raymond’s face when he was in the air looking down with the notion to land on his feet only to see the bull’s nose between his legs. This was the pen of Junior Bulls and just the beginning of an intense weekend for multiple reasons. The bull riders vote for who they want to protect them at Finals - an honor Raymond is humble about and an honor he won’t get again as he went into the season with a plan to hang up his cleats and retire after Roughrider Finals. Before, during and after each event this year I could see his conscious effort to make the most of his final season. Seven years ago when Raymond began the arduous journey of stepping in front of and around bulls, he was an age when most bullfighters are retired. I tell him often it’s a good thing purple is my favorite color since bruised up and swollen happens at times (broken, split and stitched happens also). I discussed this aspect of bull fighting with two kids in the hot tub Sunday morning at the Jamestown North Dakota hotel, hours before Raymond’s final event. BIG eyes got bigger when I told the little girl and her brother that my husband was one of the bullfighters. Reverent silence followed, broken only by the hot tub jets and finally the little boy asked, “Did you see that guy get flipped?” His sister nodded solemnly with recollection. “That was my husband.” Long bubbly pause then he whispered loudly, “Did it hurt?” “Yes it hurt but that happens sometimes when bullfighters put themselves between the bull and fallen rider, near the fence, in the corner (added challenges to a challenging sport).” Banged up, Raymond continued to protect the riders that night, the next and next. Lotsa good saves by both Raymond and his partner Tim Walford. Rank bulls and intense moments down to the last bull on the last day with a final big bump and tumble when “Goldfinger” a great big o’l bull ran over Raymond after Raymond smoothly shot the gap to distract the bull from the tossed rider. Rider safe, the bull went for the barrel man whom Raymond ran to protect. So the scariest action happened just when I thought he was finished with the last bull and after the rider was safe. Obviously things aren’t always pretty, predictable or graceful in the arena with a 2000 pound bull. But they are real (as is my relief and pride).
Cliff I know you hated to see me cry but you witnessed and cared for me through every simple and complicated crying spell imaginable during nearly 3 decades together on this mountain. I have been crying a lot lately - missing you so damn much. The loss of you in my life hasn't gotten any easier or smaller or more bearable. I couldn't even write and share stories on your 70th birthday yesterday. Raymond has been patient and kind. He even indulged in my nearly manic desire to hang two of your giant rusty grapple hooks with heavy chain because somehow it seemed important to salvage them from your sawmill and embellish my studio. I stood protectively at the bottom of the fully extended jiggly ladder with words of encouragement for Raymond (who hates heights and ladders). I could see you shake your head, eyes sparkling while your comments rang crisp and clear in my mind. I heard your laughter. Bonding, binding, storied and impossibly heavy chain just seems appropriate right now as I fumble with emotions equally dense and impossibly heavy. There is something in those hooks warm with rust...
I love you so damn much Cliff. Even as I miss you, I know your love was as unbreakable as that chain. Every clunking bit of horrific pain wracking my heart with loss is worth the love we shared. Every damn bit.
[embed]https://youtu.be/Yz9PYUejIho[/embed] While this footage isn't from this weekend's event, it captures in slow motion a few seconds of what I prefer to call "bull-dancing" rather than bullfighting. Those who choose to protect the cowboys who ride bulls are a gritty graceful bunch. Raymond entered his career "dancing with bulls" at about the time most men retire. He got kicked, flipped, flattened, winded, whooped, whacked, squashed and even scalped once when a bull stepped on his head. But between the dirt and the snot, the air and the hard ground, the bull and the rider, Raymond got GOOD. Damn good. Last night's event with a pen of rank bulls in a small dust-filled arena, ten young competitive college cowboys rode their hearts out knowing Raymond would go the distance and do everything possible to protect them. Raymond is too humble to brag but this little bit of footage gives a glimpse of his ability as a dance partner to lead and redirect his 2000 pound "partner" in the chaos on a dirty dance floor in Wyoming.
My wedding dress lay on the pillowed wicker love seat in the corner of our bedroom where my husband had taken it off me a few nights earlier. Unopened wedding gifts piled on and around our dining room table amidst the clutter of days and nights entertaining guests, the wedding preparations and my bridal bouquet. One year ago today I packed my bags, loaded the truck and drove the pass to be with mom. She'd miraculously held on to life, rallied broken bits of her mind to be present at my wedding. Earlier that morning Mom told Debbie she was scared. Debbie comforted her with bible verses; a gift powerfully perfect as the verses wouldn't have been in my bag of tools. I dropped my belongings behind the pretty rose quilted king size abandoned bed and curled up next to my impossibly tiny mother, held her hand and napped with her. Little red rosebuds sprinkled the sheets we'd purchased for her hospital bed. The rose sheets would be washed and re-washed, the hospital bed moved from the bedroom to the living room, mom carried in my arms between rooms. Seven days and nights I kept vigil, the angel sisters Debbie and Linda by our side. Mom became smaller, then smaller still. Memories of horrifically difficult moments haunt me, vivid in detail, laden with emotions and smells. Delicate slices of pure grace memories fill me with gratitude. Sincerely a privilege to tend my purple-glitter-toed mother. Dear soul. Sweet beauty.
My My husband; kick' n up dirt and tapping bulls while protecting the young men who ride.
I began this little bugger early last year. I hadn’t planned on creating an owl for 2016 (I had a another critter in mind) but early in the year an owl visited me on a full moon night. I filmed the Great Horned Owl while it sat like a sentinel on top of my beloved tree. Perfect shaped and majestic, the giant Fir tree a picturesque silhouette on starry nights between my bedroom window and the twinkling lights of Livingston below. The tree greeted me each time I drove home to my cabin at the end of the road near the top of this mountain. During the holidays I was always tempted to light it up with a huge star on top for everyone in the valley below to enjoy. We suffered and celebrated more than two decades together. The tree scourged summer after summer by Spruce Bud Worms during the last years.
After a particularly difficult winter for both of us, the tree seemed to bounce back with vigor. That spring it looked better than it had in years and I thought, “We are survivors, you and me, dear tree…we have this…!" Looking back, it is as if the tree rallied for me, knowing I needed a boost and some confidence, I drew strength from its strength.
Then it died.
I hated to ask Cliff to cut it down because Cliff had back and shoulder pain issues; old injuries from his logging days. I complained to Raymond about the negative “Feng Shui” that comes from such a large dead thing in our front yard. But what a perfect perch for a giant owl. The full moon night visit from the owl was poignant. Remarkable. I had a sense it carried a message and thought the message had something to do with my mother - perhaps the owl was letting me know 2016 would be mother’s final year. Raymond asked for Cliff’s assistance to cut the tree down in February as I birthday present surprise while I was in Panama. Of course Cliff made quick business of the tree and landed it perfectly so that it wouldn’t squish any of the young trees sprouting everywhere. Cliff cut the trunk of the tree into perfect rounds which became seats for guests at our wedding. The stumps sit in an Aspen Grove near my studio.
A few months after my return from Panama, Cliff comforted me on the morning I called Hospice for assistance to continue care for my mother in her home. Cliff took mom cookies and then he died on the same day Raymond cut the path in the meadow where Cliff was to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day. An owl perched on the tallest tree next to the Yellowstone River when Raymond, Wynn and I launched a home made flotilla with some of Cliff’s ashes in the moonlight.
Again and again I picked up the little lump of “owlish” clay but I simply could not create. On a cold winter night I gave a stranded motorist a ride to his home up Paradise Valley, a giant Great Horned Owl owl flew past my truck window and looked directly at me. Those of you who know Cliff know he was legendary for the assistance he gave friends, family and strangers alike. I knew it was time to finish the little owlet. Emotional but healing, the little sculpture began to find itself while a fire crackled in my studio.
I sent a photo of the clay owl to my girlfriend Wynn. She texted, “OMG. It looks like him. Did u do that intentionally?” Honestly I did not...but I felt so much of Cliff while working on his owl that of course “Cliffness” emanates from the owlet. Crying as I write this, feeling is part of healing topped with gratitude. Not many are gifted with a “Cliff” in their life. He was one-of-a-kind, gentle, strong and damn loyal. The tears are good - the kind of gold that comes from loving and being loved.
Chapter after chapter, critter after critter and plenty of blessings...
I meant to write. Sooner. More often. But lordy life walloped me with complexity at the same time I was whipped with jet lag (much worse jet lag on the return than going over). Just a quickie list to give you an idea:
Studio furnace gasped, sputtered and quit (over and over) a few days before my return from Bhutan. I had to gimp it along, restart and restart the poor bugger while keeping a fire in the stove for the following week. Raymond had to keep blowing our road open for three service visits while we waited for parts during a SUPER cold snap.
No truck. My truck was totaled just a few days before I left for the fairy tale kingdom of Bhutan. I've owned 3 trucks in the last 30 years. Insurance companies and shopping...
Solstice in Yellowstone. What a blessing to be at Old Faithful with my new (OFFICIAL) family for a few days of pure beauty and total delight. The snow coach delivered us back to civilization a day before Christmas Eve.
The holidays. Mix of celebration and mourning. Cliff and mom a big part of my heart and soul.
Lotsa post-holiday life stuff as the sale of my mother's condo was settled, a new (used) truck purchased, some intense post-dog-attack yuckiness in the formal (formidable) world of attorneys and insurance companies, the delivery of a sculpture to the Yellowstone Art Museum and a total (much needed) revamp of my studio.
More (of course) has transpired in the four weeks since my return. I am still processing the magic that happened overseas even as I begin plans for my return.
Each morning as I stand in the back of a truck and bounce up the primitive road-under-construction to the job site in the trees, we pass this sweet sparkle soul who sits in the same place in the same clothes catching the early morning sunshine while spinning the same prayer wheel. Spinning and grinning. Except yesterday he wasn't there. Yesterday I flip flopped from feeling very zen and adaptable in this overwhelming experience to simply feeling overwhelmed. I have been sharing with you the delicious good juicy parts but truthfully - between the blue sky, trees, vivid colors and bright sparkle peeps, there is a bumpy road with equal parts dust and muck and progress-delaying giant rock piles.So it goes... Between the giddiness, the glory, the inspiration - I still grieve. I deal with darkness, doubt, fear and frustration. I miss Cliff horribly - he has been my rock during the ups and downs of creation for over 20 years. Cliff could ALWAYS see in the wood the image and what needed to be done when my overworked mind could no longer see. "That ain't right Honey," Cliff would say but then he would look at my carving while carefully looking at the image I was trying to carve. He would take his time. Sometimes he took what-seemed-like-forever. Eventually he would point out the elusive-to-my-eyes problem. Cliff was always right. Always calm. "Don't cry Honey" he would say. He would tell me what I had gotten right as well - artists are so hard on ourselves and much of what I do as a carver is pressured by the fact that I cannot put wood back on (not in a purist sense) so relief carving has the intensity of surgery or super-difficult rock climbing. Pretty much all the conditions I have become accustomed to working under for the last several decades are lacking on this project. Compromises on top of compromises are testing my mettle. Cliff would step in when things weren't right around me and fix them - like a quiet leprechaun. After another restless night and a pre-dawn meditation session I aim to conjure up the quietude of the sweet little prayer-wheel fella. Spin. Breath. Spin. (photo taken by Christopher Spogis)
Pumpkins don't exist in Haa but apples aplenty had me thinking I could whip out one of my mom's apple pies for the gang but I kinda wimped out at the prospect of baking pie in the bukari (woodstove) so I came up with a stove top apple crisp concoction and had a BLAST cooking in the lodge kitchen with "the girls" (we've adopted our Bhutanese lodge staff of young sweeties). Rob Ryder took the photos.
Dust. Snot. Sweat. Dirt. Skill. My husband is a bullfighter (as a hobby) which means he gets paid to protect the fellas who ride bulls. Raymond simply loves impressive bulls - especially a rank pen of bulls bred to do what they do with impressive aptitude and cunning. Raymond cares about the peeps who attempt to ride bulls and he's gotten so damn good at bullfighting in the years we've been together (as his wife I believe I can brag 'tho Raymond is humble and would never brag). His cousin John Ansotegui put together this short sharp video recently from a local event. Raymond is wearing a black hat and blue shirt fighting bulls with a young partner named Ty Simenson. Raymond's little grin at the end makes my heart flutter... [embed]https://vimeo.com/187770594/ad727e1212[/embed]
Last night as Raymond shut the door on the empty storage unit I broke down and cried. I expected to feel relief. The storage unit seemed such a burden of stuff - a HUGE project - a chore I didn’t want hanging over my head/heart/bank account. But it was so……..empty.
My mom treasured that couch. She refinished those pieces of furniture for my little girlie bedroom. Mom was beautiful. She baked bread and pies and cookies and cinnamon rolls. I have been essentially losing my mother for twelve years since Alzheimer’s began its attack. I witnessed and cared for her while she lost her mind. I handled with grace the graceless moments. My heart remained buoyant in the muck so how the fuck does sweeping out an empty storage unit squeeze the breath out of my heart ’til it feels like the pile of dust at my feet?
Six years ago I swept the cement studio floor of my brand new studio; the “first sweep.” I thought I would feel pure joy. But as I swept...I wept. I slid down the wall in a corner of my brand new gift of a studio, sat and cried.
My father died earlier that year. Quick and horrific, pancreatic cancer chewed him up and spit him out. The thought that my father did not know about the giant gift of a studio from a patron who believed in my talent made me sad. I wanted him to see it. I wanted my father to see….me.
Sweeping and weeping; simple acts of cleaning scoured my heart.