Suszynski: Here, I set the stone
This marks my last weekly column for the paper. I move to Chicago in August to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in writing at the School of the Art Institute. And periodically, I will drop you a line when I am home in the mountains.
In thinking what to write here, I kept picking up books about Colorado and the West for the better part of the week. And while every book whispers something different about my home, there is one book that I recently discovered in a used bookshop that says a lot, although not always with words.
In 1995, a book called “O’Keefe At Abiquiu” was published. It contains black-and-white photos taken by Myron Wood of the famous painter Georgia O’Keefe’s homes in New Mexico. The book is narrated by Christine Taylor Patten, an artist who was hired at the end of O’Keefe’s life to take care of her.
This book is special to me because it contains a lot of why I love the West. It depicts the art of the desert, the solitude of the sun, the beauty in human-made things. It’s also a portrait of O’Keefe through the spaces that she loved, both inside and outside her adobes.
Patten writes: “I saw in her a sheer clarity of living, a oneness with life. This quality of oneness both distinguished her and made her seem mysterious. It was also her least understood capacity: an ability to make each moment’s encounter complete in itself, and thus to dissolve the differences between herself and what she was experiencing.”
I find with the wide valleys, rivers and the height of our mountains, we are given the space to see life clearly. In every aspect of our landscapes, we can find a narrative of completeness. The cycle of the seasons, the wholeness of life and death, is right outside our back door. And the quality of High Country air, our ability to, without hesitation, breathe it in, and let it circulate inside our bodies, always clears me.
O’Keefe often turned to “The Book of Tea” by Okakura Kakuzō. Patten included a quote by Soshitsu Sen XV from it at the end of the first written section of “Abiquiu”: “It is to live with a refined attention to detail — the flowers of the season, the sound of water poured onto stone, the time at which evening turns to dusk — not because these things will enlarge the self, but because they bring our lives into harmony with that which transcends the self.”
It seems to me that Patten included this quote here because it demonstrates the deliberateness with which she witnessed O’Keefe go about living: her way of being present. And then Wood was able to capture this presence in O’Keefe’s objects.
One of my favorite photographs in the book is of a slatted wood wellhead cover. On the top are one big, triangular stone, and three much smaller stones, one white with a faintly darker stripe down the middle. The caption reads: “Miss O’Keefe and Estiben (O’Keefe’s gardener and friend) played a kind of chess with these stones. As they passed by, one person would make a move and the other would respond later, or the next day.”
I wonder at the word “chess.” I almost see these stones as a different kind of game — an art kind of game. A game made of communication and language. If we cannot communicate with words, perhaps we can set stones in place of them. It’s the kind of game that we play with each other sometimes, on hikes, the cairns like little lighthouses to our creativity, our adventure, a light held to the idea that we are strangers, but we tread the same path.
This is all to say that Colorado, the West, the mountains are not just places outside the body. They exist inside of us. Sometimes I feel the arid heat blowing through my own ribcage, as if each rib were an aspen tree. Each flutter in my heart, the young green leaves moving about in the wind.
Sometimes I feel the snow settling the constant buzzing of my head. Sometimes, I am parched, struggling for water. And other times I feel as high as a summit and as happy as a marmot, as devious as a pika scrambling with a flower in its mouth. As protective of the flower, as protective of this place.
“In the intense summer heat, a person of harsh spirit could see this desert as grudging land. But it is generous. Its offerings seem sparse at first, requiring close attention, concentration, requiring vision opened by mystery and an insistence upon not being separate from the world,” Patten says of O’Keefe’s home.
What is life but a grudging land that seems sparse at times, but upon further inspection, teeming.
O’Keefe spent a year at the school I will be attending when she was young. We’ll be walking through the same passages for a time, just as we have walked the same deserts.
I like to think of each column I write to you as a stone I am setting on the wellhead cover. This stone here was placed by O’Keefe, maybe this one by you, and I will join in tomorrow. Or next month. And we will continue to be friendly in this way in the vast landscapes of the West.
Anna Suszynski is a staff editor at the Vail Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at annasuszynski or on Twitter at anna_suszynski.