Grace, middle-named for her mother’s tendency to stumble, is, foremost, Mackenzie. Mackenzie Grace. For a long while I called her Grace. Until my wife started reading the Outlander series, which, inevitably, led to her purchasing Season One of the TV series, and I watched that with her. Someone out there said something about ‘dirty Scots!’ Great Scotts, yes, it’s too dirty for your kids to watch, at least up to the point where they aren’t kids any longer. Your grandmother would probably blush to watch it, too, though lord knows you wouldn’t be here reading this if the old girl didn’t know a thing or two about the ars amores. But here is no place for Ovid or Catullus and all the romance trailing in their wake. Anyway, the Outlander series, by word or by deed, follows an English lass who gets tangled up in a time warp and then matrimonially bound up with Clan MacKenzie of Leoch, the leader of which clan is called by his honorary title, The MacKenzie. And just like that, the girl Grace became The Mackenzie, with no capital K, and pronounced with a mock-Scottish brogue.
I used The Mackenzie’s painting as the featured image for this page, so she didn’t get to pick her headshot like the other kids did. Fret not, we have taken pictures of her. Here’s one of her in her superhero guise, following in her mom’s fast footsteps: Runner Girl.
Here’s Mackenzie as a snake handler. She isn’t normally a glove-wearing priss when she holds reptiles and amphibians…she was gardening and protecting herself against our rampant poison ivy when she caught this one.
And here’s another, taken after she caught (then soon released) a small sand shark fishing with my dad off the pier in Ocean City, New Jersey. Can you spot the resemblance between The Mackenzie and the shark? Same smile, only The Mackenzie has bigger teeth.
The Mackenzie tie-dyed the shirt in her shark pic, and she painted the image at the top of this page. She and her sister, Alex, made a worthy mess in our homeschool/art room and created semi-aquatic art using pigmented, water-soluble crystals and squirt bottles to spritz the water, making droplets & rivulets, puddles & runs. The Mackenzie was aiming for a nebula. She landed on something closer to an island in a tropical sea. After consulting with her mother, the piece was titled, La Mer Etoilee. Yes, her mother speaks second-hand French, and when she speaks you can hear the diacritical marks which I can’t find on this keyboard. For those of us limited to English, poor German, and fragments of a dead language (Viva Latine!), La Mer Etoilee translates as The Starry Sea. See what she did there? It’s the perfect blending of her nebulous intent with the aqueous outcome, so the title captures the end result and presents it, admirably, as a successful and self-contained artwork and not as a happy accident of happenstance and an original conception gone awry.
In art and craft, there are often more opportunities than errors. It’s only when you get into production, where the aberrations are viewed against the backdrop of an established and theoretically immutable standard, that the variations become flaws against the codified norm rather than one of an endless series of riffs on an immaterial and unattainable archetype. I prefer art and craft to mass manufacture. I love The Mackenzie’s spontaneous artwork.
I scanned a large portion of the canvas (above) and cropped a smaller portion of it for use as a header image around this website (blogsite?). The Mackenzie’s painting, order within chaos, seems perfectly Caribbean, a visual echo, especially if you’ve spent any time pining wistfully down from an island-departing jet plane, ten thousand feet and climbing, and unsure of your next return. Yes. Pining. Those islands are my fjord. I’m not dead yet, but I do sometimes feel my feet have been tacked to my perch. Still, life in this box is better than no life at all. There’s always a chance the box will open into a new maze. Even if it doesn’t, an inquisitive rat can sit still and still find plenty to explore.
If I can teach my kids that there’s always something, somewhere, someone to pine for, maybe they’ll always be up for a new adventure, a new seeking, a deeper understanding. Along the way, there will be bumps, but pain builds character and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Trite but true. Our scar tissue, physical and psychological, is the permanent ink upon the palimpsest of our identity in this life, the marks that can never fully be got out even as we re-write ourselves over and over again in our striving toward a better self. If the scars cannot be removed, and must be worked around, then they are the basis for the art and craft of our life. A luthier once said, and this is one of my favorite unattributed quotes, “There are no flaws, only design opportunities.” So take your scars as such, not as limitations, but as jumping off points, design opportunities, as you scratch out the entangled drawings of your life’s next series of inscrutable patterns. Inscrutable you. An inescapable maze, this is where you go hunting your true self, bound, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells us, in the nutshell of our existence, yet kings and queens of infinite space. Hamlet the Buddhist?
There’s always the view you don’t have, the God’s eye view, which may be the only vantage from which the patterns of the maze make sense. This fall we explored ‘the chaos within the order of life’ in microcosm. Where? In a corn maze. The Mackenzie & Alex decided they wanted to solve the maze carved out by The Oregon Dairy. There were sixteen or seventeen markers to find within the maze, which was set within a patch of corn covering slightly less than twenty acres. It was more challenging than we thought it would be. Depending on the moderate changes in elevation, we could occasionally spot our single landmark, the roofline of a massive barn; and there was the boundary, a wider swath cleared of corn forming a dented rectangle around the maze…find the boundary and you could always find your way home, or prevent yourself from venturing into the uncharted, trackless acres of corn surrounding the maze. The maze itself twisted and turned, as a good maze should. It was inscrutable from within. It was simple to lose yourself and not hard at all to lose those you were traveling with. Sticking together, navigating, that was the challenge. I suppose you could walk past the boundary, quit the game, leave the maze, but where does that leave you? Children of the corn, lost forever in a nightmare with no pattern, no meaning.
(Photo Credit: https://www.oregondairy.com/family-fun/corn-maze )
Yet there was a pattern in the Oregon Dairy’s maze, an intricate order, when viewed from above, the drone’s eye view, the camera shot, that had enticed the girls to penetrate the maze. This year’s maze theme was “All Creatures Great and Small.” Every twisted path corkscrewing through the corn, every dead end, every loop, the paths trod and untrod in our exploration, formed a clear and distinct picture, in outline, of a fox, a raccoon, an eagle, a deer, and other Pennsylvania wildlife. For a couple hours, the outlines of these animals were our paths, but our paths seemed nothing more than dirt trails between the autumn-dead crops. Only an outside observer with a better perspective, a higher order observer, could see the overarching pattern which constrained us, confused us, guided us, and ultimately defined the passage of our lives during those hours. We lived the apparent chaos inside an indisputable order. Amazing, right?
The corn maze is an imperfect metaphor for life, but aren’t all such metaphors? And what if we’re looking down at The Mackenzie’s painting, searching for a God’s eye order within the swirl, and we notice the main ‘island,’ the largest green splotch in La Mer Etoilee, though painted several years ago, looks remarkably similar to the next of our Caribbean destinations, Nevis. Nevis, a small, roughly round volcanic island in a tropic sea. Is that a hint of order? Is it nothing but noise and the human mind seeking patterns where none exist? Why did I stumble onto her painting the day I launched the Goat Waters endeavor? Old philosophy students can be driven mad arguing about predestination, free will, omniscience, determinism, futility, and a host of related issues. No, they are not identical, but the islandish blotch of La Mer Etoilee and the stratovolcanic island of Nevis, seen from aloft, do ring a resonant bell.
The End. Sort of. Yes, I keep writing below, but this is the end of the original post, so you can stop reading and no-one will ever know.
What follows are the addenda. They’re more or less extraneous. Skip them.
Apologies to Cleese & Crew, and to Stoppard. My brows flap wildly, low and high.
Don’t watch Outlander with your sub-adult children.
Do make nebulous paintings with them. There are many substrates ranging from heavy weight rag water color papers, in which case I prefer the extraordinary fjord-ish look offered by the rough texture of cold press paper to much less expensive alternatives. Here the girls used store branded ‘student’ grade canvases. You’ll need Brusho Crystal Colours; we picked ours up from Dick Blick. You’ll also need an adjustable nozzle water spritzer, the sort sold in the yard and garden section of the local hardware store. Local. Hardware. Store. Buy local, and meet new allies. Be sure to work in your driveway, or lay a rubber-backed canvas out, stretched to the far corners of the earth, if you’re working inside. Brusho crystals are potentially messy; kids ensure that mess happens.
If you’re flustered by references to perches and fjords, go dig up the collected works of Monty Python’s Flying Circus…watch or listen to everything at least once. There’s a parrot in there, and I don’t want your feathers in a bunch.
This next will be a harder sell if you’re among the pop-culture stultified masses who believe Shakespeare is dull, or archaic, or inaccessible. Shakespeare is witty and wise. Don’t force Shakespeare on your kids, allow them Shakespeare as a privilege, if they’re worthy. Be sure they’re worthy once a week or more. Have them watch Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, all four hours of it, several times. You might even wean them onto Hamlet by initially having it run as background noise while you’re engaged in a repetitive task like planting this year’s garden seeds in peat pots, or picking pumpkin seeds out of the pumpkin gut slime prior to rinsing, salting, and roasting. Once they know the basic plot line, allow them the exquisite honor of watching Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the movie version of Tom Stoppard’s play upon the play of Hamlet. Afterwards, engage them in a game of Questions. It may become a family favorite, and it’s far more engaging than “I Spy…” once the kids graduate from kindergarten.
We’ll talk more later, but I speak from experience when I say it’s easy to get kids hooked on art and literature if they think it’s cool, and fun, and something Pops will do with them. They crave your attention. Mums, too.