an intermittent series featuring narratives from emerging writers, poets, and artists.
Caroline Allen with “I Painted Today”
Turns out it’s true, painting is the best thing to line my brain up just so. And I’ve tried a lot of other activities, hobbies, disciplines, therapies, and exercises, from surfing to free-writing three pages every morning, all in an effort to make the bad feelings subside. You know the ones I’m talking about, almost everybody does, at least the people I know. Sensitive types— artists and writers, women, the I’m-not-quite-enoughs. Even in our mid-fifties we wonder if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. I spend most of the year teaching writing and literature classes in a small college. Because I haven’t written a book, I’m not respected by administrators or colleagues, except the few who know me. There are many reasons for my not having written a book, the main one being that when my mom died twenty years ago I was so shocked I lost the desire to write. All I wanted to write about was her, but I couldn’t write about her. Somehow, I never could write. She was the closest person to me, and she was a mystery. So I painted pictures of her as a young woman holding a baby, pictures painted from old photographs my father had taken. I painted a big one, and though the photograph it was from was taken during the day, I painted a night scene, my mother standing in front of a blooming red hibiscus bush holding me in her arms. I painted red flowers against black backgrounds. My mother’s favorite color was red. I see painting as a way of being fully here, in life, with death always in the background. This not knowing what one is supposed to be doing with one’s life takes so many forms, and it’s always a race against time. Sooner or later, hopefully later, we die. Too many books and movies lately are about sickness, mid-life crisis, old age, and death. Fine, if they were really good.
About six or seven years ago—it’s all a blur—I realized that the most writing I was doing was letters of recommendation for my students so that they could go off into fabulous graduate programs and become the writers they wanted to be. I wondered why writing these letters could fill me with so much resentment and rage I’d put them off till the last moment and then finally write long wordy essays about the greatness of these fabulous young things. I’d be so hurt if they didn’t get into their top choices. And a little relieved. I mean, the world can’t just open itself so readily to some people and not to me, there must be a pattern or a reason— if my fabulous students weren’t getting into their first choices all the time, then it meant you could be good and still not make it. I’m always looking for signs.
Today when I was painting a dumpy little one-story apartment building behind a fence with tall trees and a purple ridge of oak-covered mountains rising in the background and a yellow field lit up by the sun in the foreground I felt good. I wasn’t thinking about what else I should be doing. This was it. Same thing last night. A deaf man in a baseball cap walked by and said in a nasally voice, “Very beautiful.” A white-haired woman in flowing expensive-looking clothes stood behind me with her grand-daughter and said, “Isn’t that wonderful? She’s painting a picture!” I turned around and the little girl smiled up at me, a big gap between her two front teeth. Today a man parked his camper van next to my car, got out and started asking me questions— “What are you painting? Acrylic? Oh, oil. How long you been painting?”
“Thirty years,” I said. It’s really thirty-five.
“Don’t stop,” he tells me. “I haven’t painted in a long time. Do you do this for a living?”
“So it’s a hobby or…”
“Well, it’s my passion. It’s what I like to do most.”
“Oh yeah, that’s nice. If I didn’t have to work I’d probably do that.”
“Me too,” I said. “I’m a teacher and this is summer vacation. Otherwise I mostly teach.”
“A teacher?” He sounded surprised. “What do you teach?”
“Yeah, I do all the humanities no pay to low pay stuff.”
“But you’ve got a full time job?”
“You’re lucky to have a full time teaching job.”
“I know I’m lucky, even though they’re always trying to fire me.”
“I’m not a professor, I’m a lecturer.”
“But still you got a full time job.” Dear god, yes, I have a fucking full time job— and I hate having a fucking full time job and I hate people telling me how god damn lucky I am. I’m lucky— so what? I’m also not so lucky, but I’m lucky in most of the ways that count in this world— money, health, marriage. Even the weather and scenery where I live are envy-worthy as this stubby, nice, talkative little man is eager to tell me.
“I teach music and band up in Hayward,” he says. “It’s hard to get a full-time position these days. All they want to do is hire adjuncts so they don’t have to give them any benefits or security.”
“Exactly,” I say, and finishing the thought anybody who’s paying attention to higher education these days will tell you, “and meanwhile they’re getting top-heavy with all those administrators.”
I tell him I teach at UCSB where the crazy guy killed all those people.
He doesn’t seem to know what I’m talking about. “There’s some crazy person killing people all the time these days,” he says. But now we’re dangerously close to something that could tear us apart. What if one of us says something about gun control and the other one says something about the second amendment. Better not go down that alley.
He leaves with a wave. “I’ll let you get back to your painting,” he says.
“Enjoy your visit,” I say.
Okay, so this is the kind of conversation that drives me a bit nuts, I admit that. It’s always— how successful are you, how successful are you really, but no, really, how much do you make, how much do you sell for, will I have read your work anywhere? As if I weren’t sort of wondering how successful I am myself, having been raised in this idiotic culture that thinks you are what your job is and the more awards and recognitions and high salaries and benefit packages you get the more valuable a person you must be.
A scruffy man with a wide gray beard hiding his lower face, a pair of aviator sunglasses and a smashed up old cowboy hat rides by on a bicycle. He mumbles something at me. I turn, notice the bags tied to the bike seat, filled with cans. Must be a homeless guy. “What?” I ask him.
“You’re good,” he says. “You should do this for a living.”
“I wish I could!” I say.
That was a sign, right? I should be a painter. I should make a living as a painter. How do you make a living as a painter? I think I’ll just paint. It’s almost done. I fill in the background with a weird purplish gray that makes the bright green trees pop forward. Hah– I wonder what the brilliant but cocky and superior teacher I took a workshop from last year would think of this. He hates purple. But he’d love these greens. He’d love this weather, sunny with a cool breeze.
Gotta go feed the chihuahuas, then drive to Ventura, get my hair done. Terry Gross is on the radio, interviewing a novelist who reads from his newest book. It’s about a dentist who looks into people’s mouths and sees death, disease, and decay for ten hours a day. See what I mean? Mortality is everywhere. Another book I don’t need to read.
I’m still thinking about how weird my weekend visitor was, even though she was also really kind and sweet– but the whole time I felt she was subtly trying to undermine me without even being aware that she was doing it. I get to the salon and wait with a notebook and a paper cup full of hot tea. My beautician, a lovely woman named Claudia, has this hazy look on her face, her hair is wavy and disheveled, creeping across her forehead like a winding snake, then down her shoulders and back. She rolls her eyes and shuffles me over to her chair and says, “I’m doing great! I just got back from a girl trip. It was just what I needed. Have you hard of Harbin Hot Springs?”
She lowers her voice, glances side to side at the other beauticians and their clients, says, “I didn’t tell the people who work here, but I just love how relaxing it is to walk around naked with other people lying naked in the sun, nobody caring.”
Claudia is my favorite hairdresser in my almost thirty years of going to them. She’s pretty with olive skin and dark hair, a wide face and big shiny brown eyes. She’s not only a hairdresser; she’s a mother and a shaman. Last year she was taking classes with a visiting Peruvian, famous in the shaman community.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve lived most of my life in California and the other part in Sedona, Arizona, or that I do things like go to writer’s workshops at Esalen, or take West African dance classes, or the fact that my mother considered herself to be a white witch and my dad was a psychologist obsessed with parapsychology and the supernatural, and my grandparents on my mother’s side chased down buried treasures with Ouija boards, psychics, and astral travel; or maybe it’s just because I was born at the end of the Baby Boom and grew up in the sixties and seventies; whatever reason, I’ve met a lot of shamans in my life but Claudia’s the only shaman I’ve met who also does hair.
“So what’s new with you?” she asks me.
“School’s out, so that’s good; and I just finished my own girl weekend with a friend at the Ojai Music Festival, which was not so relaxing but a good thing to do.”
“Why wasn’t it relaxing?”
“Well, the person I was with was not someone I know that well and she was staying at our house and I felt like she was always somehow undermining me in small ways.”
“Like how? Give me an example.”
“I think it’s because she’s insecure and so the way she make her way in the world is to be assertive. She’s always saying, ‘This is what I do,’ or ‘This is what I say.’
“So we go to the store to buy groceries and she’s surprised I drive twenty minutes to get groceries at Trader Joe’s. ‘I’m not a drive person,’ she says to me. ‘But I’m sure I’ve told you that before.’ She had. She lives in San Francisco and only has to walk across the street to buy a great loaf of bread or a fresh head of lettuce. In the store she says, ‘Have I confessed to you I don’t buy produce at Trader Joe’s?’ As a matter of fact, she had, just last year, and I know why she doesn’t— it’s the plastic packaging and the fact that it’s sometimes not fresh enough— I get it. But I don’t care about other people’s shopping habits and I don’t expect to have to talk about them. I guess having her around just made me come up against my own crabbiness.”
Telling Claudia this makes me realize how minor this irritation is. Not really a story that exemplifies a houseguest subtly and continuously out to undermine me.
“When I explained to her that I like to go to the Farmer’s Market for most of my produce but when I make a Trader Joe’s run I stock up on everything because I live so far away she said, ‘No judgment. I was just telling you.'”
“But you felt judged,” says Claudia. She’s brushing out my gigantic blonde frizz, standing out farther than any Bozo the clown, and staring into the wide gray line of my part. She’s got her job cut out for her.
“Yes,” I say. “I always think that when people say, ‘no judgment’ they’re actually judging you.”
Claudia laughs and says, “Let me go mix your hair color.” She leaves and I stare into the mirror at the woman sitting in the chair behind me, facing the side wall as her hair-dresser talks about cutting it all really short. I notice that the woman’s scalp shows through her thin white hair.
“It hasn’t been falling out so much lately,” she says. “I thought it wasn’t going to, because it didn’t at first, but they told me it would and it did.” Poor woman. Must be cancer.
Her hairdresser says, “Do they just keep giving you stronger and stronger doses?” She’s a glamorous young thing with eyeliner painted like Cleopatra.
“No, no. They give me the same amount each time. They say no more CAT scans. I may be going into remission. So that’s good.”
“That’s really good.”
Oh god, I think. Please don’t let me have cancer. I want to live a long time so that when I finally get to retire I can be a painter.
Claudia comes back with the dye and a tray covered in small squares of tin foil. As she brushes the dye on my roots and then pulls out strands and wraps them in foil for the high lights, she tells me more about her trip.” Actually, it had its awkward moments too,” she says. “I don’t really know the woman I went with that well either. I would get all excited like a little kid and ask her a bunch of questions and I guess I didn’t let her answer before I asked the next one so she stopped me and said, ‘Will you let me answer?’ And I mean I guess it bothered her, but it was awkward. It made me feel weird.”
“It hurt your feelings,” I said.
“Yeah, it hurt my feelings. And she’d say, ‘When I come here with my husband we do it this way.’ She had all these ways of doing things and I just wanted to say, ‘There’s other ways of doing things. Loosen up. She’s German and a scientist. Mercury is in retrograde so that makes communication more difficult. I’ve been noticing that a lot.”
I’m reminded that my guest said, “I know you don’t believe in this stuff, but I’m addicted to reading my horoscope on my smart phone. You’re Gemini, right?” And then she proceeded to read me my horoscope even though I don’t believe in it. Nobody cares that I don’t believe in it. Nobody. And tomorrow is my birthday and I’m getting older as we speak. I don’t say anything to Claudia. She’s a shaman and believes in— well, everything I don’t believe in, she does. But I don’t tell her. That wouldn’t be polite.
“I was wondering how you bounced back from what happened,” she said. I don’t know what she’s talking about. “The shooter. I guess you don’t really bounce back from that kind of thing.”
“No. It was really hard. All those poor kids. And it was right before graduation. All the seniors are freaking out already wondering what they’re going to do with their lives and you’re trying to help them be optimistic and then this happens.”
“I feel really sorry for the parents of the boy who did it. I don’t know why, but…”
“Nobody wants to raise a murderer.”
“Exactly. Nobody wants to raise a murderer.” Claudia has two little boys, one five, the other thirteen. “I think he was possessed,” she says. “I mean literally possessed. I better not go on. But really, the look on his face. That wasn’t right. There are bad things in this world.” She finishes with the foils. “But still, I believe we’re living in heaven. This is it.”
“Yeah,” I say. I love how she thinks, even though I’m not so sure this is heaven, there are days like this one, the sky so perfectly blue and the air so fresh, life just buzzing in all the plants, when it feels like it.
My hair looks great when she’s done with the coloring and the cutting and the blowdrying. I’m dazzled by my head of shiny blonde curls. I spend too much money on hair conditioner and then walk down the street to the store I think of as the fashionable old lady store and I buy myself the new uniform— a flowing tunic with an asymmetrical hem.
Getting back on the freeway heading to Ojai I notice the homeless man who told me I should be a painter for a living. He’s bicycled all the way to Ventura, about twenty miles, to stand in front of the Vons parking lot to hold up a sign that says, “Homeless and Hungry. Everything Helps.” This is my employment guru, I think. The man who’s off-the-cuff compliment I read as a sign. I resign myself to believing in nothing.
Caroline Allen has been a lecturer at the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara for over 25 years. Her work has appeared in Solo Novo, Lumina, Mary, Spectrum, and The Santa Barbara Independent, among others. She is also a painter.