Dan Smith

Chalk mark in a rainstorm

Published May 14, 2017 at 9:00am

Well it’s been a while since I wrote one of these. Half a year I reckon. Couldn’t think of much to say, I guess. But the other day I was at the gym sitting at the bench press for a rest, staring in the mirror when guess what muse came on my iPod, poking me with inspiration? Ah yes, of course you know it was Ms. J. Mitchell.

I put this album on the device because when it came out in the late 80s I didn’t really care for it, so rediscovering it now is like finding a couple $100 bills in an old jacket pocket.

On this particular song playing in my ears she relates meeting a Vietnam vet, suffering and shaking from PTSD. She tells his story in brutally haunting music and lyrics. It ends with:

“There’s a man drawing pictures
On the sidewalk with chalk
Just as fast as he draws ‘em
Rain come down and wash ‘em off
Keep the drinks comin’ girl
‘Til I can’t feel anything -
I’m just a chalk mark in a rainstorm
I’m just the beat, the beat of black wings”

Sitting there in that cavern of dedication to health and fitness, staring at my grey stubble in the mirror, I could feel the beat of those black wings…

I remembered the first time I met Dr. Mary Yoder. It was 2009 I think, my first year of pottery class at Munson Williams. She was behind me at one of those awkward kick-wheels that most shun, in the corner under the tall window, near the sink. At first I paid her no heed, busy as I was huffing and puffing to get a glob of wet earth to do anything at all. But all of a sudden there she was, this long-legged woman jumping up from her perch and crouching down on her haunches. Grasping the stainless steel sink with one hand for balance, she would stretch one leg straight out behind her, the other bent as if in some torturous yoga pose, her eyes squinting as her head moved like a bird eyeing her vase over her outstretched thumb for focus and perspective.

Intense she was! She would leap into these contortions with ease, in a flash, like spider-woman! Then back onto the stool shaped like a tractor seat – a giraffe/manits/samuari if that makes any sense. No makeup, simple haircut, all limbs in denim and flannel, a paragon of health, vitality, and a magic touch. Oh my, lumps of clay in her long fingers transitioned into some of the most amazing, impressive, b-e-a-u-tiful things you’ve ever laid eyes on. And her soul was as beautiful as her art. So quick with a smile and advice on technique when asked. We all held our breath to see what Mary Yoder was going to do next. I can see her clay tree stump. Inside the rotted-out core stood a life-size mushroom and a frog and a robin, its tiny beak and nails fashioned with exquisite detail as if it would come to life and fly away before my eyes. Then the chalk mark image melted in the rain. 

We heard the news. No one knew what happened. But she was so vibrant, so healthy! Organs shutting down? What? How?!

The beat of black wings ruffle my grey hair as beautiful bodies move around me, tattooed muscles flexing on Cybex machines in the wall of mirror. My heart freezes. I gasp and blink back tears to think of her so scared, in such…

Cardinals have taken up residence in the hemlock mere feet from my back porch. I feed them sunflower seeds. Fresh water ripples in tiny pings from unrelenting drizzle in the cement bath. I can hear the babies now, so weak, so faint, such new life in that secret garden perch. Dad is so proud, so regal in red as he wakes me at dawn atop Minnie’s giant maple, singing his heart out. He flits across the lawn and lands in the grass. Eyeing me through his dark mask he whispers, “Just breathe Dan. Soon – the beat of tiny red wings.”