Thursday, April 25, 2013


                                                               Shirley Now and Then, acrylic on canvas, 2009      Laura Cerwinske

Our neighbor Shirley, who died last summer, was as indelible a presence in the neighborhood as was her startling makeup and Indian black hair. A tiny woman in brilliant red lipstick and vivid circles of rouge, she walked up and down the neighborhood for at least four hours -- or eight miles -- a day. A vision of perpetual, steady motion, her head bent forward, her frozen shoulder curved behind, she was a moving fixture enveloped in an aura of happiness. “When I’m walking, it’s like I’m in heaven,” she used to say.

No one knew how old Shirley was, except Harold, her deeply protective husband who was retired from his career as a welder for Pan American Airlines and who wasn’t much for talking. I guessed from her height (maybe 4’10”) and sun-stained skin and fragile-looking bones that she might be around eighty. Of obvious Cherokee descent (her hair was obsidian black and her cheekbones angled high), she grew up on Florida’s west coast in deep orange grove territory where, on her walks to school, she encountered all manner of “Swamplandia’s” creatures. When the School Board insisted she ride the school bus, she refused. Her mother stormed the School Board office, arguing on Shirley’s behalf…and won. Shirley walked the several miles and several hours each way, in bliss.

Her mother must have adored her, for when she asked Shirley what kind of dress she’d like for her first grown-up outing, Shirley showed her a picture of Suzy Wong in a frock with a Chinese collar. Her mother sewed the dress for her and added a bauble that Shirley wore around her ear. Years later, she would have a portrait painted of herself taken from a photograph of her in the dress and bauble. This portrait was the beginning point of our friendship.

I, too, am an avid walker. And whenever Shirley and I crossed paths in the neighborhood, we’d stop and chat. Usually about our mutual love of being in nature. “I could live happily under a tree,” she’d say. “I could live happily in a tree,” I’d answer. When I revealed to her that I was an artist, she asked if I’d like to see the portrait. It seems Shirley also loved to paint, and it was this passion, along with her love for the memory of that dress and her mother, that had prompted her to have this special portrait made.

I was eager to see this evidence of Shirley’s history. Waiting outside the chain link fence that surrounded the ramshackle house where she and Harold lived, I contemplated Shirley’s devotions – walking, communing with wildlife, and now, it seemed, art. Harold emerged through the front door carrying the portrait. Even from the sidewalk, I could see that it was elegant and articulate. Up close, I could easily detect not only the determination Shirley possessed in her youth, but also her youthful beauty.

Colorful, dare I say dramatic makeup was only one among Shirley’s notable features. Her black eyes were starkly framed by bangs and braids. A beautician once convinced her to cut off the braids. She compensated with braided wisps which lent her an incongruous twist of urban chic.

Shirley’s smile outshone everything else. I never once encountered her on my dog walks when she didn’t greet me with a grin so generous it could fill a movie screen. “You look so pretty today. I love what you’re wearing…or, I love those earrings…or I love the color of your shirt,” she’d say. And she truly meant it. She was easy to delight.

I asked Shirley if I could bring over my camera and photograph her with the portrait so I could do a painting of her. Harold granted permission and chaperoned the event.  Later that year, 2009, I invited them over to my house a few blocks away to see the finished work. The painting is nearly life size, and I titled it, “Shirley, Now and Then.” Harold nodded at it. Shirley grinned and glowed. “You’re a really good artist,” she told me. Then I took a photo of her standing next to my painting of the picture of her holding the portrait and then another photo of her standing next to my painting holding the photo of her holding the portrait. (Very post modern, indeed.) Now, added to her compliments about my appearance whenever I saw her was always praise for my talent.

Shirley and I often talked about animals – my dogs, the squirrels and birds she fed, her own dog, Bonnie. Bonnie was a sweet old pit bull who, apparently, loved to dance. Music was yet another of Shirley’s passions, and she told me how every night she would put on a record and dance. (Learning this was reassuring, because I’d never been entirely sure their house had electricity). Bonnie, it seems, also loved dancing.  Upon hearing the music, she would stand up on her two hind legs and “walk” across the floor to dance with Shirley.

For years, Harold and Shirley bought birdseed to spread around the front yard poincianas where Shirley also fed individually-named squirrels and foxes. You might have taken her for St. Francis of Assisi…or Snow White (if Snow White could be a tiny Cherokee woman with vivid lipstick and wispy braids), surrounded by adoring woodland creatures and glowing with beneficence. (Knowing, squawking blue jays perched on Shirley’s shoulders as she tossed morsels to the assembly, their tails a riot of twitching arabesques. Then, money got tight (I assume Harold and Shirley lived on his Social Security), and Harold determined that the wildlife food was too much of an expense. The feedings stopped. Still, a squirrel or two would often trot alongside Shirley on her walks, chattering, maybe scolding, but undoubtedly sustaining the bond.

Long after telling me the story of Bonnie the Dancing Dog, I asked what had happened to Bonnie. Dade County, it seems, had passed an anti-pit bull ordinance restricting the breed from residential neighborhoods, and the dog police had come and taken Bonnie away. Shirley related the story to me soberly, but without anguish or even nostalgia. I was crushed. Shirley resumed her walking.

copyright c Laura Cerwinske, 2009


Orange Springs, oil on canvas, 2003                    Pat Jacobs

In numerous spiritual traditions, brokenness is looked upon as a path to power. The little known Hindu goddess Akhilandeshvari, for example, typically depicted as a woman riding like a warrior on a fearsome crocodile through deadly turbulence across a river, derives her power from being pulled apart, from having to live constantly in different selves simultaneously, from never being “complete”. What does such a concept offer us, what could such an image teach?

The crocodile is a predator that kills not through the brute force of its huge jaws, but through the power of violent disorientation. It snatches its prey from the riverbank, thrusts it into the water, and spins it “like a dervish seeking God.” In this way, the victim virtually scares itself to death. What could be better!

Like the crocodile’s prey, we, too, can scare ourselves if not to death, then into sickness, paralysis, and impossible disorientation. Our stories run our lives, and when these stories are disrupted or in any way “broken,” the illusion of being “whole” implodes, our specific sense of the future dissolves, our expectations grow meaningless, and our anticipations either no longer apply... or resound with all too much disappointing familiarity. Then, our role takes on a new and different responsibility. We must reassemble the pieces of our story/our lives – either back into their previous form (which can never truly be replicated – time and energy have intervened) – or into a new shape and motivation that integrates the changes wrought by the brokenness.

Consider these words of one of my students: Every time she erupts, I fall apart. I am broken into pieces and sent flying. I want to come down to earth. I want to feel whole. I want out of the paralysis of grief and terror. I want my momentum restored.

Because the writer was consciously and non-judgmentally observing his emotional self (as opposed to unconsciously acting it out), he had the option of grasping for the shards of the old story and/or conjuring a horizon in which the disorienting picture can be diffused, resized, re-colored, rearranged, or dissolved. He can use his brokenness to reshape the story and realign an inner compass.

The crocodile archetype represents the reptilian brain, the neurological aspect where the fight or flight reflex resides (in the part of the prefrontal lobe known as the amygdale). In times of brokenness or panic, the reptilian brain surges into action, flooding the endocrine system with hormones that put our minds and bodies into a state of full alert. In moments of physical danger, this can save our lives; but as a repetitive emotional pattern affixing us into a condition of fright, the reptilian brain remains, like the crocodile, geared to devour us with every bit of its disorienting force. The female divinity -- the symbol of the right brain, creativity, and transformation – rides the crocodile through the prismatic refraction of watery turbulence to arrive at a new location, perhaps even on a different shore. Akhilanda does not tame or kill the predator, but uses her own power – the power of non-judgmental introspection and divine intuition -- to navigate the waves.

But then, even when Akhilanda lands, battered but safe, her newfound unbrokenness is but temporary. (Ishvari means female power in Sanskrit, and Akhilanda means “never not broken.” In other words, she is the “always broken goddess.” She must continue breaking apart and reassembling herself, riding the next crocodile and navigating the next waves. Her brokenness is life, the crocodile itself, the river, the spinning, the disorientation. All are elements of the process of living, which, after all, is one of allowing our pieces to fall away and collecting them for the next reassembling.

Thus, there are always fractures, unexpected curves, and dangerous edges to our storylines... both crisis and growth make them evident. Observing, releasing, reinventing, and riding our crocodiles across the turbulence, we never get the story straight. And never have. For the story – past, present, or future – never is straight. After all, nothing in nature moves in a straight line,. Our stories hold our power, and our power emanates from the imagination which resides in the subconscious, in the fields of our right brain, in the realm of the reptile.

copyright  c  2013 by Laura Cerwinske
with acknowledgement to Julie Peters and Eric Stoneberg,