I have found myself tremendously gifted with friends, many of whom have helped me to understand the real meaning of the word “joy”. Today I am inspired to write about this, because of the passing of a dear woman whom I feel privileged to refer to as a my friend, Jane Blaffer Owen, who left us last night, during the summer solstice. Two months ago, another friend, Claudia Elliott, passed at dawn on Easter morning. The timeliness for each is metaphoric, and helps me to accept these losses with a sense of happiness at the rightness of the larger plan.
Both of these women were inspirations not only to myself but to many, many others, particularly in my new home of New Harmony. Claudia grew up in New Harmony, left it for more dynamic places while her mother Josephine Elliott was busy archiving the town’s history, and returned here as her parents faded. She and her husband John were deeply involved in the town’s creative musical life, as well as in the profound social network in this tiny place. As I got to know Claudia, and her brilliantly transparent, all-seeing eyes, she helped guide me through extremely difficult emotional times. Claudia was ill: disabled by the time I met her and living her rich life out of the confines of a broken body and a wheelchair, but her exceptional tenacity and creative exuberance never left her and I was deeply inspired by this gift of life & joy she gave to all around her. When her spirit left her body at dawn on Easter, the town made a collective, deep sigh of loss, but her memorial service was joyous and we all felt she had been set free. I was left to savor my good fortune in having known her, and to try to incorporate some of the insights she gave me into my own life.
Jane Owen is to be credited for bringing Ben and me here: yes, it was our own decision to change our busy urban lives in for rural peace, but she was the catalyst, the muse, perhaps the siren as I often jokingly said, who lured us here with glimpses of the joy and wonder of this Utopia we now endeavor to maintain.
Last night, a group of faithful friends and new acquaintances were walking the Cathedral Labyrinth in New Harmony — one of her many spiritual gifts to the town –bringing in the Summer Solstice. Mrs Owen’s dear friend, Phillip Newell, recited prayers and chimes were rung as the sun set. In Houston, Mrs Owen passed on, no doubt aware of the love and prayers being felt for her all over New Harmony.
For me, she was an example of the possibility of real joy. We all strive for “happiness”, success; I left Chicago looking for something else, for peace. We had met Jane Owen in visits to New Harmony — a fascinating place made more so by her myriad cultural and architectural projects — and she kindly assisted us in every imaginable way to make first the decision, and then the transition. She included us frequently at her table, where we met literary and spiritual lights, and her air of serenity and deep joie de vivre floated over us all like a magical charm. She honored me by endorsing my artwork, often climbing the 23 steps to my studio (at the age of 95!) and sending visitors and friends there frequently. She showed her trust in me by sharing the draft of her memoir with me, from which I learned her story in her own words, and some of the real difficulties as well as the triumphs she had faced in her life. I felt by hearing her voice in those pages I knew her much better, and could imagine her as a dynamic younger woman, in her prime (at my age!) and working with great architects & artists to shape New Harmony.
There has been conversation for years about what might happen to New Harmony when she passed, as she has been so benficent here. My view has always been that she has been carefully building a generation of cultural successors who will be able to maintain, and more importantly add to, the town she so loved. I know Ben and I are deeply congnizant of wanting to make a lasting contribution here, and in our own ways we devote tremendous amounts of time & creative energy to the life here. We endeavor to bring people here — professional friends, close friends, students, colleagues — to show the world what is possible in a small rural town when imagination is set loose. I know I have huge ideas about what a creative Utopia means, and my friends & I regularly have long discussions about how our own activities might work to manifest good and make this town of 850 more self sustaining as well as more nurturing. To Mrs Owen, I pledge now to continue the joy and the generosity she has shown to me, and to try to share my own humble version of it wherever I go.