Monday, January 9, 2017

TOUCHED: JAMES CHRISTENSEN


He swept his arm through the air, crossing over the yards of canvas stretched before us. “Welcome to The Garden,” he said, with his signature smile lighting the space, easing the introduction for people whose admiration of him made them nervous to meet him. With all good graces he greeted my aging mother, then handed her a paintbrush and a palette. 
“Would you like to sign my guest bush?” 
The long slender paintbrush was passed from hand to hand.  
Today, in the Garden Room of the Nauvoo LDS temple, there are leaves that speak the names of my mother, my sister, my husband and myself, and others who were fortunate enough to visit that sacred creative space. James C, the painter of fantasy and hump-backed Everymen, who also knew how to handle serious matters in ink and oil, was masterful at his art.  But mostly, he was masterful with people.
A rare combination of ingredients made the recipe of James C Christensen deliciously unique: the kind of fare that worked in exotic places with outrageous prices and also hometown diners. He fit everywhere.  Everywhere! And we who knew him in his bare feet understood that the fact that he made us feel like his best friends was simply the way he treated everyone.  He had just enough ego and success to build his confidence and to drive his pursuit of excellence, and just enough humility to understand from Whom his confidence sprang. 

James was James partly because Carole was Carole.  Every James Christensen-type-person needs a Carole Christensen to balance him. She is the green to his red, the yang to his yin. He’d tell you this himself. Part of the beauty of their love story is their mutual understanding of their self-designed roles. She knows him, probably better than he knows himself. And he trusts her, thank goodness, because she has saved him from his own candor more than anyone can say. 
I know no other human being who fills the category that James filled.  Witty, wise, stalwart without being judgmental. He was a dreamer who made his dreams come to life, and who encouraged other talented dreamers to do the same. I first met him around a conference table at BYU, two decades ago.  I was newly appointed to the board of directors of the Mormon Arts Foundation, and was assigned to direct the three-day Mormon Arts Festival at BYU the coming year. We had chairpersons over varying artistic disciplines from film to music, literature, dance, theatre and visual art. James oversaw the visual art group. He was massively large; not in the physical sense. It’s just that he completely filled every space he entered, and bits of him flowed out through the doorways and into other spaces, the way his buddy Pat Debenham’s laughter does. He was a storyteller, not just through his art. He was a master of words and ideas, and he knew the ebb and flow of human emotion and could play it like a pro in any public or private setting. Oh the stories that have danced across his dinner table, across the large round picnic table on his back porch, across the podium as he led us through the last two decades of a small annual artistic retreat we worked together on. James, with the aid of Carole, was Chairman of the Board of the Mormon Arts Foundation. For the last few years, since the retirement of our founding father Doug Stewart, I have served as president of the foundation. We read each other pretty well, James and I. He knew what I could do, and I knew he could do everything I did and more. No one has ever led a discussion with more ease, skill and good humor than James.  In the same paragraph he could have us rolling on the floor with stories about how his son-in-law Dan Barney re-sewed his Costco jeans into skinny jeans, and then in the next sentence he would make the goose bumps rise on our arms with his tender testimony of the goodness of God.
When James and Carole first married, James says, there was a moment in time when they had to make a decision about what career path they would take. At the time he was actually making waves as a musician. His band was gigging nationally, making money, and moving up the ladder of musical success. James tells how he and Carole prayed, and pondered, and came to the decision that they would take the fork in the road that led to his incomparable painting career.  Imagine our world without a humpback, or a magical fish floating through a mystical ocean. Imagine!

Back when we were painting on his guest bush on the canvases of the Nauvoo Temple, I remember him taking us into the room where Gary Smith and Chris Young were painting the magnificent scenes depicting the creation of the world. (Disclaimer- I'm not really remembering with much accuracy who painted what at the time. Forgive me.)  
"Guess what is under this amazing ocean of water?" James said. He gave us that coy sideways flickering glance, and told the story. In the middle of the night, after everyone had left, James and Robert Marshall snuck into their room and painted fantasy fish in the ocean water. Of course the fish are painted over. They had complete reverence for their subject matter and it looks just divine when the paint is dry. But I like to think that the under layer on that canvas of paint brings the Lord some measure of delight. The antics between James and his fellow painters were part of the joy of working with him. Ask any of them who were fortunate enough to work with him.  He was like glitter-glue: Everything and everyone became bound together, and it was obvious James had been there.
James battled cancer with the strength and grace of the Pilates moves he practiced regularly with Carole and his friends. It was a roller coaster ride for him, his flight with cancer, and I’m afraid he suffered more than he ever let on. The level of hope he carried the last number of years…that we all carried with him…was a testament to his trust in God’s purposes. Not that he felt entitled to tell God what to do. But he did find great purpose in the consecration of his art. Last year, while he was undergoing cancer treatment, he began his days at the Provo City Center temple with “the boys”. You know the classic scene of retired buddies meeting for breakfast at their favorite diner?  These “boys” met daily in the empty rooms of the re-purposed Provo Tabernacle, in the process of becoming the Provo City Center LDS temple. The rooms then echoed with their conversation and smelled of oil and paint. James and Robert and Gary, with David Linn and Doug Fryer as the youngsters assigned to handle the painting of the ceiling, devoted each day to painting the murals that grace the walls of that temple forevermore. Eventually the boys were aided by two of Jim’s daughters, Cassie Barney and Emily McPhie, and Downey Doxey-Marshall, Robert’s daughter-in-law, among a few others. All in all, about ten artists gave their gifts to the Lord in that project. When it ended there was a sense of melancholy. Robert passed away not long after the temple opened. It broke James’ heart. James and Carole could not shake the worry that without such divine purpose, James may lose his earthly footing.
Two months ago James and I sat beside each other on our friend Sam Cardon’s couch. We had just finished breaking bread together at the breakfast table. As usual, James oversaw our board meeting for the Mormon Arts Foundation.  
“Before we start," James said, "I need to tell you something.”  
Hearts throbbed and tears flowed as he told us that the medical trial for which he was the first patient, had not done the trick.  The cancer was reeling its head, and though there was hope for a new trial, I sensed the spirit whispered that this might not be his destiny. 
That was the last time I saw Jim. Between then and now the power that was James Christensen belonged to his truest loves.
When word came tonight that James had left us for holier spaces, it was unfathomable.  Like, shouldn’t the world stop spinning?  Shouldn’t it at least pause on its axis out of respect? 

On our living room wall we are blessed to have one of James’ last paintings.  It depicts an artist standing before a blank page.  James thought perhaps it was a representation of painter’s block.  For me it is writer’s block.  I suppose, tonight, I am thinking that that blank canvas is all that lies ahead for my friend. A blank page, waiting for his imagination. Perhaps, looking at it more closely, that white page is actually the entryway to the hereafter. He told me he wasn't completely certain what that page represented anyway.
On our living room table there sits a large book of scripture and an equally large book called Men & Angels with a painfully beautiful sentiment from Jim written inside. As our friend Kirk Richards said tonight, when the news of James' passing wafted over to him and he blew it my way, “If there is a winged angel in this universe, I hope it carries James home.”


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

LET THE REST OF THE WORLD GO BY (MY AUNT MAE)

Her door was never locked.  Not that I recall, at least.  And no one ever knocked.  Just whistled through the screen, or called out as they crossed the threshold.  It was this way from the start; in that place way back in my memory when my mother’s sister, Mae, was relatively young and lived in their stucco house with the yellow painted side porch there on the corner of University Avenue in the heart of Blackfoot Idaho. In more recent years, after Uncle Les was gone and she moved from the old house to that teeny little place in the retirement community east of Walmart, it was the same.  We would drive up from Utah, singing the Idaho State song every time we crossed the border, and land in the parking lot just outside her place.  Last time we visited her there she was back in her bedroom in her rocking chair, next to her little portable exercise machine, her soft beaded buckskin moccasins placed tidily next to her bed. I asked her if she ever got bored, and she replied that she hadn’t yet. “Oh, I read, and do a little thinking.  And then if I start feeling lonely I just whistle.”
Aunt Mae was one of seven sisters in my mother’s family. Seven sisters and three brothers. Those sisters were a distinct cluster of characters, each one unique and all of them united.  There is a sacred thing that happens when the mother of a large family dies at a relatively young age, the way their mother did.  The family either falls apart or binds together.  These sisters cinched their mother’s apron strings tight around each other, creating traditions and memories that sealed them in their sisterhood.  They were famous for their sister parties; gatherings for birthdays and other occasions.  My mom missed many of these when she left the fold and moved to Pennsylvania for a few decades.  Still, when she could, she donned a crazy old hat and joined the party, passing the paper birthday bag back and forth with crazy silly greetings, playing dueling harmonicas, card games, singing old familiar songs and telling old familiar stories.
It was Aunt Mae who taught my husband Dave how to fly fish.  Out there in the Arco desert, smack in the middle of nowhere Idaho, on that pristine piece of water that flows eternal. The Little Lost River, my favorite fishing spot.  We camped under the old owl tree, drifting off to the rhythmic rippling of water and the whispering Idaho wind working its way through the sage brush. First light, we could hear the music of her reel as she pulled the fishing line a full arm’s length from her rod.  My mom and I never did embrace fly fishing.  We preferred the mind freeing banks by the deepest holes, and the great mystery of a worm wiggling underwater out of sight.  But Libby and Dave -they stood there in their waders, upstream or downstream from my mother’s older sister.  When one of us hooked one on our line, we let out a Native American holler, “Woo-Wooo-Wooo”, our pitch rising and falling like a bird call.  We could hear each other all morning, and clear into the deepest sunset, hollering our successes up and down stream.
Last year, before Aunt Mae fell and broke her hip and moved into the nursing home, we picked her up and took her for a ride.  She had bequeathed her car to her granddaughter Krishna years ago.  It was a noble thing, handing over her keys, knowing she was doing the most responsible thing.  I respect her deeply for it. I ache for her having to do it.  She was 90 years old then, and she figured it was time. Still, it makes me weepy to think of it. So we picked her up in my van and drove her to Walmart, where we bought her a CD player to replace her old cassette tape machine.  And then we took a drive out past the old Asylum, out to the old ranch where she spent much of her childhood.  “There on the corner is where the school wagon picked us up.”  Before there were buses, children were transported to school on horse drawn wagons.  I imagined my mother and Aunt Mae climbing up into the wagon bed, their woolen stockings stretched out at the knees and drooping. I picked a twig of sage and put it in the dip of a handle in the door inside my car, inhaling as I drove, looking out over the sand dunes that were the backdrop of my mother’s youth. Aunt Mae played harmonica for us all the way back.  Her breath control was amazing, and she cupped those arthritic old hands around her instrument, fluttering her fingers to create a haunting vibrato.  Her mournful song echoes in my memory, and I can hear, if I am still long enough, the distant rippling of water behind it. 
Aunt Becky & Aunt Mae
My Auntie Mae’s harmonica sits cold and faithful at her bedside tonight.  There is no more breath in her.  Sometime this morning she left that old body that housed her spirit for nearly a century. 
I imagine there is some sister party going on up there in that heaven place right now. I imagine all six of them peeking over their silver lined card table, winking down at my Aunt Becky, the last sister to remain on earth. Aunt Mae takes her place at the table, her shoulders square, her chin up.  She holds a fan of cards in her hand, licks her finger and rearranges them, glances over at Mary, trying to remember how to read her, and lays down her first card.   My mother sits across from her.  She is young, and beautiful, and she is herself once again.  It is a happy scene, and if it is not so, then I do not want to know.


I lay my head on my pillow tonight with this image in my head; my mother and my beloved aunts are huddled around a card table, or a kitchen table, or a campfire…the scent of sage and earth and water and campfire smoke fills my nostrils, and the melodic strains of Let the Rest of the World Go By will play me to sleep. My Aunt Mae’s toe taps the beat as her chest rises and falls, her head cranked to the side, her arms drawn across her heart and her hands cupped in front of her lips.  I hear her still. Always will.



Sunday, August 7, 2016

WHERE HER HEART IS (My sister, Sherry)

It’s blueberry season in Michigan. They are plentiful and inexpensive, so our fridge at the cottage was always full of them during our two-week vacation to the shores of Lake Huron.  Every day our thirteen-year-old grandson, Timothy, stood on one side of the kitchen counter and fed sweet little blue orbs to his baby sister, Gracie, who hovered in her little counter seat on the other side.  Gracie is not likely to remember these particular Michigan blueberry days, but she will know, viscerally, that her brother is an ally.  There is a sacred bond between this boy on the outer edge of adolescence and his sister who cannot yet say his name. I think perhaps she allows him to hang on to that thin thread of childhood he is generally trying to stretch his way out of. It’s an interesting and tender thing to watch.
We left our kids and our cottage three days ago and flew to San Francisco for my husband’s semi-annual American Bar Association conference.  When I get to join him on these trips I sleep in and laze around while His Honor attends judicial meetings, then we are off doing some adventuring together.  It’s been a hectic summer for us. I know there was a June and a July in 2016, but I can’t remember where they went. Though it is now August, typically the hottest month of the year, we were shocked when we walked out the doors of our hotel and shivered in the cold summer fog that crept in from the bay. Familiar goosebumps rose on my skin.  DejaVu goosebumps, on aging skin.
Later, sitting on the bed in our room at the Marquis, I searched online for suggestions about how to spend our days under the Golden Gate.  As I scanned various top ten lists of things you shouldn’t miss in San Francisco, I realized I had already done nearly all of them.  I haven’t been to SF for years, probably decades even. It struck me that what I know of San Francisco I owe, almost entirely, to my sister.  Sharon is the oldest of seven kids.  I was kid number six. 
Sherry was about Timothy's age when I was born. It was Sherry who stood on the other side of the high chair and nourished us. When our family moved to Pittsburgh PA from the small town of Shelly, Idaho, Sherry had just graduated from high school.  I was five years old then.  I remember climbing the steps up to the airplane and looking back at my sister, who stood on the tarmac bravely waving, smiling through her tears. It is one of my earliest memories; sitting on that plane in 1963, weeping as we flew away from our dog Schatze and my oldest sister.
Sherry put herself through college at Utah State and Idaho State, ending up with a degree in Speech Pathology.  Through a series of fateful events she ended up working in the Bay Area of northern CA. By then we “three little girls” at the tail end of the seven kids, were swirling into our teenage years.  Sherry had remained connected to our mom and us through long distance calls (in the days when those calls cost a pretty penny) and love packages she sent home.  Matching dresses; Diamond almonds in assorted flavors (before they were available in local stores); super sized taffy suckers from the Lemon Tree; deep red dyed pistachios and salty white ones (the kind that left evidence on your lips when you snuck them from the marble bowl on the dining room shelf.) Books, and jewelry and other tokens of love, Sherry sent from across the country.
When Sherry was settled and working full time, with a place of her own, we extended our summer trips to Idaho further west… over the High Sierras and all the way down to the salty shores of the Pacific Ocean. We camped out on the floor of her apartment.  Swam in her pool and flirted with the guys. Ate Franco American spaghetti and white bread with butter, or ramen noodles we purchased from Cost Plus, before ramen noodles were available in local stores.
Sherry introduced us to Cost Plus, the birthplace of my addiction to unique bargains, a haven of magical finds unavailable anywhere else in America. She drove us to Berkley and the outlet shops, when they really were shops attached to factories, where seconds and over runs were sold at bargain prices; where your sisters had to hold up a sheet around you when you tried on your Gunne Sax dress because there were no dressing rooms. Coit Tower, the Golden Gate, and Fisherman’s Wharf, when the piers were full of real fish and fresh Dungeness crab that was so fresh it didn’t smell fishy. The tiny little pockets inside our cheeks tingled with the taste of Boudin’s warm, fresh sourdough bread. We nearly hyperventilated inhaling the combined scents of salty sea air and rich chocolate at Ghirardelli Square. We were haunted into the foggy night by the echoing bark of sea lions and crashing waves on the rocks along the shoreline. Sausalito and Monterey Bay and the beautiful green landscapes of the wine district. The lunging motion sickness brought on by a trip down Lombard Street. San Francisco, I realized today, is nestled in the cells of my senses, planted there years ago by my oldest sister, and the one just younger than her who followed her to this place.
Today Dave and I decided, on a whim, to hop on a cable car. The driver stood behind me, leaning the full weight of his body back against the lever, his deep voice calling to the riders as they hopped on along the route “Move away from the door”.  My eyes lifted from the rising and falling of the steep streets to the top of the trolley car, with its layers of white painted wood.  The familiar metal bell clanged as we went. Metal screeched against metal as I imagined the massive cables running under the streets pulling us along like the cables that pull an elevator. We rode the California line, up past China Town, where a symphony of drums panted under a long yellow dragon floating through a sea of people.  “Fisherman’s Wharf”, he called as he pulled the lever and rang the bell. If my arthritic knee had not reminded me otherwise, I could have sworn I was fourteen years old!

Except for the evening spent in the police station, reporting my stolen phone and wallet, this has been a beautifully reminiscent trip for me.  It was here, against these waters, that my husband proposed to me over forty years ago.  Here, I found the world a much broader, deeper, more vibrant place than the little potato farming town of Shelly and the brown necked mill worker city of Pittsburgh.  Here I got my first whistle from a passing fella.  Here I found by dreams expanding, and my world unfolding; all under the safe wing of my sister.

Today Sherry texted me, on the phone I no longer have, and asked if I had found the heart she left here (cue Tony Bennett). It think it's a lost cause.  A part of her will always remain here, even though the rest of her is planted in Utah one house away from us. 
Tomorrow, with a little luck and a case number from the police station, they might allow me to board a plane and go back to Utah.  But for tonight, one last night, I think I’ll turn off the hotel air conditioning and crack open the windows on this high rise, hoping as I drift off to sleep that I can go back to that place where the magic sifts in like summer fog under the great Golden Gate.
Thanks, Seestor.

WHERE HER HEART IS (My sister, Sherry)

It’s blueberry season in Michigan. They are plentiful and inexpensive, so our fridge at the cottage was always full of them during our two-week vacation to the shores of Lake Huron.  Every day our thirteen-year-old grandson, Timothy, stood on one side of the kitchen counter and fed sweet little blue orbs to his baby sister, Gracie, who hovered in her little counter seat on the other side.  Gracie is not likely to remember these particular Michigan blueberry days, but she will know, viscerally, that her brother is an ally.  There is a sacred bond between this boy on the outer edge of adolescence and his sister who cannot yet say his name. I think perhaps she allows him to hang on to that thin thread of childhood he is generally trying to stretch his way out of. It’s an interesting and tender thing to watch.
We left our kids and our cottage three days ago and flew to San Francisco for my husband’s semi-annual American Bar Association conference.  When I get to join him on these trips I sleep in and laze around while His Honor attends judicial meetings, then we are off doing some adventuring together.  It’s been a hectic summer for us. I know there was a June and a July in 2016, but I can’t remember where they went. Though it is now August, typically the hottest month of the year, we were shocked when we walked out the doors of our hotel and shivered in the cold summer fog that crept in from the bay. Familiar goosebumps rose on my skin.  DejaVu goosebumps, on aging skin.
Later, sitting on the bed in our room at the Marquis, I searched online for suggestions about how to spend our days under the Golden Gate.  As I scanned various top ten lists of things you shouldn’t miss in San Francisco, I realized I had already done nearly all of them.  I haven’t been to SF for years, probably decades even. It struck me that what I know of San Francisco I owe, almost entirely, to my sister.  Sharon is the oldest of seven kids.  I was kid number six. 
Sherry was about Timothy's age when I was born. It was Sherry who stood on the other side of the high chair and nourished us. When our family moved to Pittsburgh PA from the small town of Shelly, Idaho, Sherry had just graduated from high school.  I was five years old then.  I remember climbing the steps up to the airplane and looking back at my sister, who stood on the tarmac bravely waving, smiling through her tears. It is one of my earliest memories; sitting on that plane in 1963, weeping as we flew away from our dog Schatze and my oldest sister.
Sherry put herself through college at Utah State and Idaho State, ending up with a degree in Speech Pathology.  Through a series of fateful events she ended up working in the Bay Area of northern CA. By then we “three little girls” at the tail end of the seven kids, were swirling into our teenage years.  Sherry had remained connected to our mom and us through long distance calls (in the days when those calls cost a pretty penny) and love packages she sent home.  Matching dresses; Diamond almonds in assorted flavors (before they were available in local stores); super sized taffy suckers from the Lemon Tree; deep red dyed pistachios and salty white ones (the kind that left evidence on your lips when you snuck them from the marble bowl on the dining room shelf.) Books, and jewelry and other tokens of love, Sherry sent from across the country.
When Sherry was settled and working full time, with a place of her own, we extended our summer trips to Idaho further west… over the High Sierras and all the way down to the salty shores of the Pacific Ocean. We camped out on the floor of her apartment.  Swam in her pool and flirted with the guys. Ate Franco American spaghetti and white bread with butter, or ramen noodles we purchased from Cost Plus, before ramen noodles were available in local stores.
Sherry introduced us to Cost Plus, the birthplace of my addiction to unique bargains, a haven of magical finds unavailable anywhere else in America. She drove us to Berkley and the outlet shops, when they really were shops attached to factories, where seconds and over runs were sold at bargain prices; where your sisters had to hold up a sheet around you when you tried on your Gunne Sax dress because there were no dressing rooms. Coit Tower, the Golden Gate, and Fisherman’s Wharf, when the piers were full of real fish and fresh Dungeness crab that was so fresh it didn’t smell fishy. The tiny little pockets inside our cheeks tingled with the taste of Boudin’s warm, fresh sourdough bread. We nearly hyperventilated inhaling the combined scents of salty sea air and rich chocolate at Ghirardelli Square. We were haunted into the foggy night by the echoing bark of sea lions and crashing waves on the rocks along the shoreline. Sausalito and Monterey Bay and the beautiful green landscapes of the wine district. The lunging motion sickness brought on by a trip down Lombard Street. San Francisco, I realized today, is nestled in the cells of my senses, planted there years ago by my oldest sister, and the one just younger than her who followed her to this place.
Today Dave and I decided, on a whim, to hop on a cable car. The driver stood behind me, leaning the full weight of his body back against the lever, his deep voice calling to the riders as they hopped on along the route “Move away from the door”.  My eyes lifted from the rising and falling of the steep streets to the top of the trolley car, with its layers of white painted wood.  The familiar metal bell clanged as we went. Metal screeched against metal as I imagined the massive cables running under the streets pulling us along like the cables that pull an elevator. We rode the California line, up past China Town, where a symphony of drums panted under a long yellow dragon floating through a sea of people.  “Fisherman’s Wharf”, he called as he pulled the lever and rang the bell. If my arthritic knee had not reminded me otherwise, I could have sworn I was fourteen years old!

Except for the evening spent in the police station, reporting my stolen phone and wallet, this has been a beautifully reminiscent trip for me.  It was here, against these waters, that my husband proposed to me over forty years ago.  Here, I found the world a much broader, deeper, more vibrant place than the little potato farming town of Shelly and the brown necked mill worker city of Pittsburgh.  Here I got my first whistle from a passing fella.  Here I found by dreams expanding, and my world unfolding; all under the safe wing of my sister.

Today Sherry texted me, on the phone I no longer have, and asked if I had found the heart she left here (cue Frank Sinatra). It think it's a lost cause.  A part of her will always remain here, even though the rest of her is planted in Utah one house away from us. 
Tomorrow, with a little luck and a case number from the police station, they might allow me to board a plane and go back to Utah.  But for tonight, one last night, I think I’ll turn off the hotel air conditioning and crack open the windows on this high rise, hoping as I drift off to sleep that I can go back to that place where the magic sifts in like summer fog under the great Golden Gate.
Thanks, Seestor.