Gabrielle Louise Blog

Dust Devil Memories 

We stopped by my grandmother's old house this morning, pulling away from last night's venue in 100 degree weather and punching the address into the GPS: 2317 N Tuscon Blvd. Before he bumps it into drive Decker pours a Dr. Pepper over the old cubes from his cashed ice coffee and answers a phone call on his head set. "Are you in Tuscon?" he opens, "You son-of-a-bitch! I was at Congress last night!"  He pops his bubblegum and the extroverted enthusiasm of his conversation fades to the corners of my consciousness as I try to regulate my own temperature. The a/c hasn't started working yet and the van is an oven. If I don't find my sunglasses in the next fourty-five seconds my eyeballs are going to spontaneously combust. Decker's been kind to take me on tour with him this weekend, and even kinder to drive me up to the old place just for a look-see. 

I kick my feet up on the dash and listlessly watch as we navigate through the neighborhoods of terracotta and stucco with xeriscaped yards of flowering cacti and mammoth succulents, past adobe walls crawling with bright pink bougainvillea and roadside regiments of prickly pear and palm trees. I wonder if this heat will peel the skin off my face, and I hold my iced-coffee up to my forehead in desperation. The houses start to get smaller and the yards turn from private oases to hot dirt driveways and weeds. The cute coyote fences change to chain link and the gravel groans under the weight of our tires as we pull up to the address: 2317. 

I hop out of the tour van to take it in: maybe six hundred square feet, metal grates on the window and a basketball hoop hovering over a disintegrating cement slab in the back yard. Various electric and telephone wires border the small lot, and a solitary juniper tree casts a few feet of hopeless shade to the left of the front door. 2317. Granmie Merrie's House. 

What I remembered about the floor plan was totally correct, living room on the left where my younger brother and I sat mesmerized in front of the television watching claymation "Pokey and Gumby" cartoons while Merrie died in the next room of cancer. Maybe 4 and 2, and not yet aware of death, we were happily transfixed -- crosslegged and frozen, leaning forward in the dark as if to enter the glowing box we so rarely had the opportunity to indulge in. The day outside must have been bright and hot like today, but the curtains were drawn in my memories and the doors closed. 

I hop back in the van, worried I might disturb the current residents, and we carry on out of town, stopping for gas before heading north to Phoenix. Birds take flight from the tops of the metal canopies covering the pumps, and tinsel flags glitter ostentatiously around a used car lot across the street. Decker asks me something, but I struggle to answer, still withdrawn into the far corners of my memory, pressing rewind on the VHS tape and listening to it's whir blur the sounds of my mother making lunch in the adjacent kitchen. We never even knew there was something unpleasant taking place! My kid brother and I tore into those sandwiches with the same terrorizing hunger we would have had at a summer amusement park. How a mother can protect you and shelter you from sorrow with just two pieces of bread and sliced ham! 

We hit the interstate and a tambourine jangles in the back seat when we speed over bumps in the road. I try to take myself into the present moment, try to appreciate all the chaos and history that has brought me here to this arbitrary but enjoyable moment in time. Picacho peak juts it's jagged toothlike summit above the Sonoran plains, glimmering though a curtain of heat waves. Columns of dust devils, like hot pink smoke signals, swirl and dart in between the tall cacti. I think about all the childhood stories that rose up out of this landscape for me, how they've created my identity as it is today -- random whirlpools of memory resurrecting from the dusty past. 

How could I ever mistake the desert for being lifeless? How dare I! 

I wonder if dad ever played that club we did last night. It was a historic hotel, so my guess is that thirty years ago it would have likely hosted the desert-rat rock n' roll bands he kicked around with. We've stoped off the side of the road now so Decker can have a smoke, and I watch him roll it through the dirty windshield - wild hair bunched back at the nape of the neck, ringed fingers and brand new belt buckle making little light explosions in the noon sun. A train speeds by with colorful boxcars stacked like children's blocks and he cups his hands around his cigarette as he lights it, turning from the blast of sandy wind from the wake of the train. He grinds a stone into the ground with one tanned sandaled foot and as he looks down his sunglasses fall to the tip of his nose. We don't really even know each other, and he is being very tolerant of the introverted, self-reflective state I've had all morning. 

I dive back into my mind one final time as he's taking his last couple of drags, squeezing the last few contemplative breathes out of the morning before we set into the frenzy of preparing for tonight's concert. 

I think about dad and mom's life here before I was born: singing Fleetwood Mac covers together in their matching suede mocassin boots with the bright silver buttons lined all the way up the top of their calves, and about that one remaining photo of them on their wedding day. She was tanned and thin, gracefully waiting, as though holding her breath in her understated but elegant satin wedding dress. His hair was full and exploding in a firework of brown rockstar curls. There wasn't much for anyone at their wedding save a congregation of saguaros and sun beams. 

I wonder how much of who I am in this present moment was sculpted out of the hours I stared at that photograph. How much of my mental bandwidth is occupied only with the aching to begin my own life, make my own family with children who I captivate with a single polaroid from the past. But I am here in this moment instead, frozen like a bug in amber, in a kind of limbo. I'm between worlds, between identities, between stories. I'm a vagabond troubador on a random baking hot highway, headed north. And I'm just fine with that, I suppose. At least I retain something malleable and fluid, something of the uknown and magical. 

It reminds me of a quote I just read by James Baldwin, and I release a breath of relief, recognizing my good fortune to be staring out at the open landscape of my future, writing a story very different from my parents, and still -- nay, always -- discovering who I am. 

"Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one's nakedness can always be felt, and sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes."

The Two Rules of Watercolor 

This watercolor is of the Alhambra, in Granada. The best view of this magnificent structure is from a viewpoint called Mirador de San Nicolas. It's a brick plaza at the height of Albaicín, a historical neighborhood "that retains the narrow winding streets of its Medieval Moorish past," according to wikipedia. Flowering vines drape over the brick walls and the labyrinthine passages are dotted with heavy wooden doors studded with metal embellishments. Many of the streets are already narrower than an alley, but they grow progressively smaller and turn to stairs as you near the top. One nearly expects the climb to turn to ladders before the paths meet and open into the plaza of San Nicolas. 

In this square there are artists who vend their custom crafts displayed on blankets, musicians busking flamenco for the crowd, tourists sitting on the old brick wall and dangling their feet down above the endless view, toes tapping, tapping into the air. 
There are old churches and mosques, flowers, fountains and orange trees (yes, even in December) and as fate would have it for our stay - the full moon as well. 

My sister and I spent several nights there, including Christmas eve and Christmas night. 

On our first visit I met an older gentleman selling his watercolor prints. He was hunched down over his blanket display and his white hair fluffed in the wind billowing up in a warm current from the street below. His works were very good and underpriced to boot. Tremendously inspired, I bought one. 

As it turns out, I should have bought two. 

"I'm learning how to paint!" I said, in overzealous, crappy Spanish. 
"Bueno." he responded, with absolutely no affect. 
I kept up with the friendly, curious tourist act anyway. What could I loose? 
"How many years have you been painting?" I asked. 
"Twenty Five." He said. 
What is the most important thing to know?" I asked. 
"You should probably study at a school or something, it's complicated." 

I frowned. I didn't mean to, I really didn't. But like a child who dropped their sucker, I was a bit disappointed to say the least. He seemed to sigh as he changed his mind, and leaning closer, classically, he began to whisper a few tips. 

I squeezed my brows together as tightly as possible so that I might catch the words between them. I felt myself squinting into sunlight that wasn't shining. He spoke softly and quickly, slurring, and always casting aside the last sylables from his words as though they were unnecessary ornaments. 

My brain worked hard to stay on the second language surfboard and the stream of ideas came underneath it in a solid tide until a phrase I recognized emerged. 

"There are two rules in Watercolor," I caught. "They are very very important." 
Perfect, I thought. This should be good, and he's being very kind to tell me. 
"Try not to break them." He said, "Ever." 
"The first is: always begin with painting the background and work forward to the foreground." 

I looked down at his works: interminable sense of distances in the atmosphere, alchemical intersections of color, lace-like detail etched into moorish doors and flowering trees hovering above enchanted gardens. Arabic calligraphic carvings into white walls glowing with summer sunlight. 

I could start to see it. How he was building them from back to front, with the most amount of detail always on the flower in the foreground, as though you could yourself pluck it from the rest of the portrait and put it in your breast pocket. 

I've been thinking about that rule for the last few hours working on my little landscape here. It's been very helpful. 
I'm of course quite grateful for his tip, and I can tell that I'll probably think of this man with his stiff leather hat and his tight lips hiding missing teeth every time I work on a watercolor for the rest of my life. 

But in the meantime, I have to admit.... 

I never did understand what the second rule was.

That Forgetful Sun, Rising up Again 

Oh, my brain! That whirlpool of worries, that spit over a fire of yearning, that washing machine of sopping hopes, caged organ, croquet course of ideas and well worn waterway of stories; that attention hoarding dictator of dramas and whimpering slave to my ego. Can’t I just hear my heart pounding instead?  

Oh, my heart! That shattered glass temple, that forgetful sun, rising up again; that stormy tempest, great betrayer, tattletale to my mouth; that buried ember, unearthed and blown; that pulsing fistful of muscle moaning for life: more, more, more...  

Oh, my soul! That cobalt blue diver, that quiet and peaceful knowing, broader and deeper than the rippled surface anxieties of the mind; that infinite center, that faithful camaraderie with the self — because the self is all things at once and requires no distinction, no more than the laced and dappled light of the lake requests separation from the water.  


I was inspired to write this poem after reading a quote by Diane Ackerman in which she lists some fun analogies for the brain, and the painting is based on the beautiful black and white synchronized swimming shots of Swedish photographer Emma Hartvig.