To my fellow swimmers

"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
—Andre Gide
Banish the word struggle

I've been listening to Fully Alive: A Retreat with Pema Chödrön on Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. A prophecy for our time by the Hopi Elders is woven throughout the talks. The main theme of the retreat is about how to stay in the middle of a fast flowing river (life as we know it now) and not hold onto the shore (out of fear and be torn apart.) One line in the prophecy advises us to "banish the word struggle" from our attitude and vocabulary. The prophecy is addressed "to my fellow swimmers."

A few days ago, I took my last swim in the ocean for a while. There is nothing to hold onto in the water but the force of the wind and current. In fact, you don't hold onto that, you play with it. Wow, if you struggle in the water, all is lost. You really have to trust the water, waves and current to support you while you float or move. As for letting go of the shore, I prefer swimming with some action of natural forces (not that too much action isn't scary.)

I referred to the part about banishing struggle in one of my drawing and watercolor classes last week. If you try too hard to draw or watercolor with a particular outcome in mind, it usually shows. Trying too hard is a form of resistance, struggle. You can't hold onto anything (but the pencil, pen or brush!) while you draw and watercolor. You work with, rather than resist the process of natural forces like seeing, perceiving, remembering, and transforming through the retina, nervous system, breath and muscles of the arms and hands. The best drawings and watercolors look effortless.

Mastery of any creative expression (and life is all creative expression) produces results that often looks effortless no matter how much work is involved.

According to the teachings in this Pema Chödrön retreat, we do not let go of the shore and banish struggle to save ourselves but to be of service. Think about it.

When you let go of struggle, resistance and fear, aren't you more delightful to be around? Don't you help others more easily? Doesn't your light shine more brightly?

For me, the answers are yes, yes, and yes.
“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one."
― John Ruskin


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Read it again

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
― C.S. Lewis
The local farm stand has a table of used books. Earlier this summer, I spied a couple of paperbacks from my childhood and picked up both of them for $1. One was The Call of the Wild, the other, Rascal. I just finished Rascal and don't mind telling you that I cried near the end.

There's nothing like spotting the cover of a cherished book from childhood in a pile at a yard or book sale. I've spied several favorites over the years, have re-read them and been stunned by the language, imagery, lessons and stories. While slightly intoxicated by the familiar musty smell I realize how much I was formed and influenced by these seemingly innocent works.

One book I did not read as a child is Bambi by Felix Salten. I'm including it in my short list anyway. I found an old hardcover copy of that book while down with the flu in a friend's daughter's room and read it while recovering far from home. Forget Disney.

John Galsworthy wrote the original foreward:
"Bambi is a delicious book. Delicious not only for children but for those who are no longer so fortunate. For delicacy of perception and essential truth I hardly know any story of animals that can stand beside this life study of a forest deer. Felix Salten is a poet. He feels nature deeply, and he loves animals. I do not, as a rule, like the method which places human words in the mouths of dumb creatures, and it is the triumph of this book that, behind the conversation, one feels the real sensations of the creatures who speak. Clear and illuminating, and in places very moving, it is a little masterpiece.

"I read it in galley proof on the way from Paris to Calais, before a channel crossing. As I finished each sheet I handed it to my wife, who read and handed it to my nephew's wife, who read and handed it to my nephew. For three hours the four of us read thus in silent absorption. Those who know what it is to read books in galley proof, and have experienced channel crossings, will realize that few books will stand such a test. Bambi is one of them. I particularly recommend it to sportsmen." —March 16, 1928
I spend a lot of time helping people experience the world pre-verbally. Drawing is more fundamental than reading. But great writing and a good book can transport us like nothing else.

A short list of favorite childhood books I have re-read:

A Light in the ForestConrad Aiken
The Story of My LifeHelen Keller
By the Waters of Babylon (and all the other short stories by)Stephen Vincent Benét
RascalSterling North
BambiFelix Salten
Winnie-the-Pooh + The House at Pooh Corner A. A. Milne
Fahrenheit 451Ray Bradbury

I should mention, of course, that many of the original versions of many books from childhood have exceptional illustrations by exceptional artists like E.H. Shephard (Pooh), John Schoenherr (Rascal), Kurt Wiese (Bambi), to name a few.

Comment below this post to leave your favorite(s) from childhood reading (especially those you've re-read.) Would love you to share them with each other (and me!).
"The aroma of an old book is familiar to every user of a traditional library. A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents." —Dr. Matija Strlic, University College London
Listen to Aldous Huxley talk about language and read from Helen Keller's autobiography.

"Somewhere it must all be recorded, as insects are captured in amber—that day on the river: transcribed in Brule water, written on the autumn air, safe at least in my memory."
—Sterling North, Rascal


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Honour thy father

"Viva enim mortuorum in memoria vivorum est posita."
"The life of the dead is set on the memory of the living."

My father's birthday was last week. I'm not sure which date because his birth certificate did not reflect his actual birth date. Even my brother and I can't agree on the date we'd celebrate as a family though I defer to his memory because, in this case, it's better. In fact, when my brother and I were speaking last week, he pointed out that our father would have turned 100 this year.

I'll mark my father's centenary with lyrics to a song I wrote for him (but never recorded) and some stuff he used to like.

Long ago, in the mist of almost forgotten family lore, "they" (I guess my father's family) used to say that my father's eyes were as blue as the Lakes of Killarney.

The Lakes of Killarney

In salty air,
on sandy feet,
you pointed out across the waves,

“Somewhere out there Ireland lies
and one day I shall take you there.

"It is the place where we come from.
Out of the marshy timeless mist,
with poems and magic we are kissed.
Our souls forever breathe her airs.

"Our thirst is legend,
for we are Irish.
In dreams we drink the rainbow dry.”

and now I dream in gold
and now I dream in green

If your soul is in repose,
then all Killarney’s lakes must seem
as blue as your eyes,
as blue as heaven.

©1995 Suzanne McDermott/Drexel Road Music (ASCAP/STIM) All Rights Reserved

Some things about my dad

Ed McDermott graduated 3rd in his class, Order of the Coif, from University of Pennsylvania law school in 1932. At 29, he argued a case before the US Supreme Court that's still quoted today.

He was once arrested for bathing without a top at Atlantic City beach.

During WWII, he taught naval officers accounting at Penn.

Before he was married he loved driving convertibles, especially when they were filled with pretty women.

He was a passionate audiophile, brought home the first serious turntable in the neighborhood from some local radio station, subscribed to High Fidelity and built varieties of huge speaker boxes over the years. By the time I was 5, he'd taught me how to drop the diamond stylus needle at the start of LPs and how to carefully retrieve and replace the albums in their sleeves.

Sam Goody helped my father build his early record collection. One day, Sam insisted that my father bring a particular record home for me. That night, Dad handed me a copy of Meet the Beatles and said, "I understand you should listen to this."

He read things like Donald Francis Tovey's Essays in Musical Analysis for fun. On the other hand, he'd skip down the stairs singing "Harrigan" and played infinite variations of "Collegiate" on the piano.

He was a huge fan of Arnold Toynbee, Toscanini (he once caught Toscanini's baton at a live concert), Shakespeare (especially the Cambridge Dover Wilson editions), Q, and new camera equipment (he had a good compositional eye.) He collected first editions of the Cambridge Shakespeare, A Study of History and Modern Library editions. He read stacks of Erle Stanley Gardner and Iain Fleming.(My brother would have to fill you in on his enthusiasm for sports teams because I couildn't have cared less and paid no attention whatsoever.)

An avid health nut, my father jogged, walked everywhere he could and kept things like blackstrap molasses, honeycombs, wheat germ, protein bread and such in the kitchen. As a young man, he rowed single scull on the Schuylkill River. While I was growing up, he swam a mile a day.

My father never spoke down to me, always brought me along for a jog and made sure that my brother and I had swimming lessons as young as possible. He taught me to body surf and always cut me a wide swath of independent space without ever letting me out of his sight.

The only real argument I remember between my parents was when my father wanted me to watch the film of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones with Albert Finney. My mother thought it was too mature. (She won.)

One of my fondest memories was when he took me to see Forbidden Planet and explained afterwards how it was adapted from Shakespeare's The Tempest.

A great dancer, I especially liked standing on his feet while dancing with him as a little girl.

He was an exceptional bridge player though all I saw of that were his blue ballpoint pen markings on the newspaper bridge puzzles he did on the train rides in and out of town.

Every weekday morning, he went to 6 AM Mass at St. John the Evangelist in the city before heading into his office and never said a word about it.

He loved the ocean.
"Let us not burden our remembrances with
A heaviness that’s gone." 
—Wm. Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1
One of my father's photos from the late 1940's - early 50's


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from my journals
6 October 2013
"Character contributes to beauty. It fortifies a woman as her youth fades. A mode of conduct, a standard of courage, discipline, fortitude, and integrity can do a great deal to make a woman beautiful."
—Jacqueline Bisset

Discipline is a practice.
"Without discipline, there's no life at all."
—Katharine Hepburn
It's been an interesting couple of weeks in my little world. The only thing that has kept me upright and onboard is my personal, daily discipline. I've not been able to follow all of my practices but those that I have been able to follow have kept me from falling down and not getting up again.

I was sitting next to a friend's mother at brunch in early September. Can't remember the details of what prompted her response but she looked at me pointedly and said, "No matter what, don't weaken!"

Whatever your circumstances and specifics may be, we all go through challenging experiences. What keeps any of us on board is our faith, true friends, our daily spiritual and physical practices and willingness to continue, to the best of our abilities.

Walk, draw, paint, do yoga, pray, run, meditate, I don't care what you do but like marriage, whatever you sign up for, remember that it's in sickness and in health and whether you like it or not, do your practice daily to the best of your ability.

Any of my students will tell you that my live workshops are a rush. We cover a lot of ground in a short period of time and, even if you don't finish with a picture you consider worthy of framing, you feel accomplished, fearless. You have a backbone.

It's easy to have someone paint by numbers or splash paint on a canvas for fun and send them off with some finished product. It's not so easy to lay out the underlying principles and elements of a creative form and explain that real accomplishment requires discipline, which requires showing up over and over again no matter how many times you fail or fall down.

My long course, online students will tell you that discipline is de rigeur. Each student must find their way, regardless of personal situations, to meet the work and do it. My online course students show up and learn and do and exchange. I love and admire each of them for doing so. Their work and their relationships are a beautiful thing to watch unfold.

If you're not working on drawing and watercolor and you don't have me as a teacher, life's going to find you anyway. There's no way around it. If you want to accomplish anything, you must practice. If you have to practice anything, you must discipline yourself.

Discipline. It's a good word.
"We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment."
—Jim Rohn
"If I'd had good discipline, I might have gone into music."
—Clint Eastwood
Click here to listen to King Crimson's Discipline.

If forced to pick one most favorite band of all (my life) time, the choice would be easy. King Crimson, second incarnation with Tony Levin, Bill Buford, Adrien Belew and, but ofcourse, Mr. Robert Fripp.

To learn more about how this piece came together, click here.


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Get Out!


Go outside and take a walk!
"If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk."
—Raymond Inmon
Walk outside. It's easy, free and one of the best things you can do for yourself.

If you're able, get off the beaten track. Leave your cell phone, and camera behind. Look up. Look out. Listen to the birds. Notice where the sun is positioned in the sky.

See how long it takes you to get past your thoughts, out of your own head. How long does it take to really become present in your surroundings?

Let your busy mind fall in synch with ambulating. Notice how good it feels for your lungs to start pumping with your legs and for the oxygen to course through your system.

Doesn't if feel great to look at the real world in all its depth and beauty and not at a backlit computer screen?
"A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world."
-Paul Dudley White
How close are you to a path through nature? Is it right outside your door? Do you have to hop in a car and drive? Can you find nature in your immediate and everyday surroundings?

It's there — you just have to start to notice it. The birds are singing, you just have to listen. If you can't hear birds, wonder why and find someplace you can.

Even walking for twenty minutes can change your mood, your well being and point of view. It's true. Shut your computer down and go remind yourself!


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