As the year comes to a quiet close, I sit across from my twelve-year-old niece, Trinhity, as she patiently works on her study of a kingfisher. This memory is one of many that I will store in my mind and heart, this moment when her fervor for art blossoms so much so, in fact, that she walked out of her bedroom at 7:00 am this morning with drawing book in hand, and drew for about an hour before she realized she hadn’t brushed her teeth. (No judgement, here, young lady, I empathize completely.) It takes me back to when I received my first art set that came in a heavy plastic ultramarine blue suitcase, complete with color and graphite pencils, a glossy paperback “how to draw” book, and a watercolor set. That suitcase made me feel like a legitimate artist, even at nine years old. In my best handwriting, I wrote an essay that I titled “I want to be an artist when I grow up”, mounted it on cardboard, and kept it in that suitcase.
I am thankful for these things and many things. But, recently, I realized that there is one treasured thing that I have in my life, a thing for which I realized I may have never given proper thanks. This precious thing that can be shared and inherited. This glorious thing that enables us to relive our joys. This extraordinary thing that allows us to spend precious time with those we love, even after they have passed on. This significant thing that imparts wisdom upon us as we refer to the lessons we’ve previously learned. This special gift that we often take for granted.
This gift of Memory.
I was recently invited by the Alzheimer's Orange County to take part in a collaborative project, for which I was to choose one painting that was made by an artist in the Making in the Memories class, a program that provides persons with Alzheimer’s disease an opportunity to express themselves through art. I was inspired by a painting called Only There by Dr. Justin Call, a Salt Lake City native who grew up marveling at the beauty of his Wasatch Mountains as he would ski the slopes, later finding his calling in pediatrics, child psychiatry and psychoanalysis. My task was to create a piece of my own in response to his painting.
I was drawn into its stillness and its movement - the earth above, strong and still, beneath the surface, a fluid and ever changing substance, much like this substance that we call Life. I thought about how the painting might describe what Dr. Call experiences in his day to day life - the ebb and flow of memory, the divergence and convergence of moments passed, the sparks of a familiar feeling and the fading of something once known.
I spent some time with Dr. Call at his residence. And as we got to know each other, I wondered how much of it he would remember. Born in 1923, he witnessed a time when talking movies, bubble gum, sliced bread, and M&Ms were invented. The Great Gatsby was published and Babe Ruth sets the home-run record. T-shirts, bikinis, and ballpoint pens were introduced. He lived through the Great Depression and WWII, and a time when Ann Frank went into hiding, the Golden Gate Bridge opened, Social Security was enacted in the United States, and Superman first appeared in comic books. And I wondered how many of these moments he remembered.
We discussed our common desire and need to understand human emotion and behavior, and the ways in which these feelings can be harbored and expressed. For him, his early psychiatry practice allowed him to better understand these emotions, and later in his life, he would begin making sense of these feelings through painting. As I studied his piece, I wondered about his very specific marks, where they all came from, where their roots led, and which of the windows in his mind he looked through as he painted them. These marks felt like they were very carefully considered, even if by the marks themselves, that each knew its purpose, existing to serve as a foundation for the mental image of Dr. Call’s beloved Wasatch Mountains. A confident smudge of red-orange, a strong stroke of deep blue, a gentle fleck of radiant red, all surrounding a mountain peak that stands proudly among the glorious landscape that has rooted deeply and lives on in his memory.
My life's work touches deeply on spiritual understanding, family history, and inherited memory, and I could not imagine what my life would be like without this gift, without the ability to reference moments passed and lessons learned, faces known and connections made, curiosities fulfilled and things discovered. So as one cycle ends and another begins, I take this time to honor all the memories that I've collected in my years, to give thanks for them, and to treasure them as the sacred gifts that I've been given.
Only There by Dr. Justin Call, watercolor on paper
** May this blesséd new year bring us an abundance of loving, soul-soaking memories and cherished moments to cradle in our palms and press dear to our hearts. Moments that we can reach back into, and smooth over our skin to relive its enduring warmth. This is my wish for this upcoming year and evermore. God bless us, every one. **
Always with Love, Trinh