2016 ends with my neighbor Austin’s death, a woman whose life at its heart, was an inspiration to everyone who was fortunate enough to meet her. An artist into her eighties, her home showcased canvases and masks, hanging on the wall, inviting the visitor into a corner of her rich and complex psyche, a true wild woman who I am sure channeled moonlight through her fingertips. It wasn’t so much who she was in life, it was how she was, that moved us.
Three times a week, she walked the hills around our little town with her friend, Denise, huddled together, two ancient women undaunted by the climb.
Austin had a large deck that wrapped around her house, the centerpiece of which was a claw foot bathtub, plumbed so that she could run hot water and soak outside, while she looked up at the stars.
From the branch of a fruit tree in her garden hung a blue chandelier. Another tree, one that had died, one that might have been a nuisance or an eyesore to someone else, she adorned with glass bottles making it a prominent piece of art.
Sometimes the sound of drumming was carried by the evening air, a gentle, pulsing, rhythm of celebration. Surrounded by people of all ages, sitting in a circle on her deck, everyone drummed, this amazing woman at the circle’s center keeping time.
When my husband and I moved into the neighborhood, she hand wrote invitations and put them in all of the mailboxes, inviting us to gather on her deck. We learned we were not the first people to be welcomed by her in this way. And it was at her house where we began relationships with our neighbors over garden tomatoes, cheese and wine, all of us delighting at the ultimate conversation piece, that claw foot bathtub.
How can such a woman be anything but beloved? Everyone knew her and everyone loved her. She was for our community a true elder who with wisdom and wit, relished the journey and made things with her hands and her heart to the very end. For her, age was not a limitation but a force that propelled creativity to greater heights.
This past summer, she built a small studio on her land, replete with a garage door that opened to the garden. With a surge of artistic juice, she created the work for what was to be her last show in October. The cancer that overtook her brain, came fast and hard. Still, she managed to display her creations one last time before the disease stole her away from this realm to one where I imagine blue chandeliers hang from all of the trees.
Austin died at home yesterday morning and I have spent the last twenty-four hours allowing myself to open to the inspiration she left in death’s wake:
Why settle for convention, she showed us all, when you can have a claw foot bathtub in the middle of your deck? Why recede from life when there is so much art to be made, when there are so many new friends to meet? Why stop, when the hills beckon your steps every other day? And most importantly, why not live wild and free until every last drop of life is wrung from the cloth of your being?
I will miss seeing Austin. I am sorry that I didn’t know her better or longer and I am so very honored and grateful that I got to know her at all. My life and the lives in this community are richer because of her. I think that each of us secretly hopes that we will age as fully and as well as she did. She sure showed us how it’s done.