Tools & Talismans #48 — Ash Ambirge

Each time I begin painting one of these Tools & Talismans pieces I find myself focusing on a couple of things:

  1. What's going to be the hardest thing to paint.
  2. Will I be able to infuse the painting with the vibe or nuance of the owner of these tools and talismans.
  3. And, what things have they included that are the same or different from all the paintings that have come before it.

This one from Ash Ambirge was 1. all about the glass decanter and the silver chains, 2. will I be able to inject the painting with Ash's humour and the edginess of her writing? and 3. oh I love painting keyboards.

Truthfully, I think the glass decanter and the silver chains are about a 65% toward pulling off the feel of glass and metal, and I had fun trying to re-create the signature on the check (since I'm Elizabeth too, I struggled to not sign it in my own signature style) and the humour and edgy bit? I think Ash's own writing below will pull that together. But the keyboard. The little buttons, the symbols. The shadows on the board. Who knew I'd be so pleased about painting another keyboard, but I am. Now here's Ash:

The temperature was 42 degrees — colder than I had felt in a while. As I jogged, and then walked, and then jogged some more, the ski lift rooted me on. I had never been to Vermont before, but this retreat was exactly what I needed: The space and the silence to remember what it’s like to care about myself again. For so many years I had toiled away at the keyboard, typing my dreams by hand, that when I stopped to look up, I saw an extra 30 pounds and a quiet bitterness that hadn’t been there before. I needed to do something. Something for me. As I bent down to pick up the small white rock, I vowed to keep it with me, as a reminder of how good it felt to be with myself once again.

Working from home is one of the least glamorous things I can think of, right alongside shoveling elephant manure. Perhaps today I’ll wear the cute blue and white striped Piko top, I think to myself. It’s comfortable enough to be relaxed in, but not too relaxed that I look like a wash lady. I don’t know where I got the term “wash lady” — maybe my mother used to use it? — but becoming one is something that terrifies me. It would be too easy, you know. Too easy to go one more day without putting on a dab of makeup; without having to so much as blow dry your hair, or even really bother with contacts. Who’s going to see you, anyway? The answer, as I’ve learned, is simple: You’re going to see you. And the more times you look in the mirror and become ashamed of what you see, the more that lack of confidence starts to show up in everything you do. That’s why, Piko or not, I keep this tube of Mac lipstick in my pocket. The shade is Luxe Naturale, and believe it or not, sometimes it really is the small things that make the biggest difference.

The check was made out to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, in the amount of $24. The memo line said “license renewal, James Ambirge,” and the date was November 3, 1997. The check would have been just any other check, it’s standard blue issue coloring corroborating its unspecialness, and in any other lifetime, maybe it would have been. I wondered, when my mother wrote it: Did she tell him? Did she do this for his pride; his dignity; his hope? Or, did she do it for hers? When I spoke to him over the phone, he barely knew who I was by then. The women at the hospice said he was delusional. But when he died that February, we had known for many months that the cancer would win.

There are loud wins in life — the book deals, the client wins, the keys to a new home — and then there are the quiet ones. The ones that don’t scream, yet speak volumes. We had been dating for years now, and living together for several as well. I had adapted to Costa Rica — or, at least I tried. I was there, wasn’t I? Alas, I wasn’t. Not really, anyway. You can be physically present in a place and be perfectly absent, at the same time. I hadn’t been ready to give up my life of wanderlust; the adventures and the travel and the curiosity and the BIGNESS that is getting to know the world. I wasn’t really ready to be in Costa Rica. But the day I purchased the decanter — the gorgeous crystal decanter — I brought it home and served my favorite Cabernet Franc, and knew for the first time that I had arrived.

You can find it on a rural road in Pennsylvania, Unit D32. There, tucked in-between two golden meadows, lies my past. I stop and say hello to her whenever I’m in town, always with a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts in hand, and an unscheduled afternoon. She tells me stories of my childhood and my birth; the family I never met, and the people I never will. Her cool gray cement floors refresh my memory those lazy June days when we usually have our typical rendezvous. You would never know that so much could be found, merely by turning a key.

It’s the top level of the parking garage, with the direct entrance into Nordstrom. I started parking there when I first moved to Philadelphia, all those years ago, and now, whenever I visit, I will not — cannot — park in any other place. There’s something about the familiarity that draws me; perhaps this is what it feels like to have a family, or a routine, or a life in one place? You begin to have rituals, and patterns and habits, and well, particular parking spots in particular parking garages, I supposed. Every time I saunter in, I pretend to be twenty-four again and put on an act of bravado as I march through the double glass doors, silently wondering if the others can tell that I don’t belong. That Nordstrom's is a place for women like them, not for me. There is, however, one counter in particular, right in the center before the escalators, that I approach like a child at Christmas, and feel entirely at home. It’s my favorite jewelry counter — the one with all of the funky big stuff. I bought my first designer piece of jewelry there, many moons ago, and the last time I was home, everything fell into place once again. The parking garage welcomed me with open arms, and so did this necklace. Sometimes, it feels good to be seen.

Desktops. MacBooks. iPads. iPhones. There are a million apps and a million tools and a million ways to put the words onto the page. Have I tried them all? Of course I have. But none compare to my favorite app of all: A blank Moleskine journal, simply waiting to be filled with the next great idea. Mine.

They say you can write your future, but little do they know just how literal the phrase can become. When I first started blogging, I never knew how the words on the screen would become the totem poles of my career. I never knew how my ability to put sentences together in ways that tickled the eyes would someday become my saving grace. I never knew that, with every letter I typed, I was, in fact, one step closer.

He told me the price of the glasses, and inside I whispered, “Yes.” My fiancé had another reaction: Ouch. But somewhere along the way, the more successful I became, the smaller the numbers sounded. “I’ll take them,” I told the associate. And when I walked out of the store wearing my very first item from Chanel, I knew I hadn’t done it for the label: I’d done it for me.

Pink is my least favorite color — except when it comes splashed atop oversized coffee mugs that will, every day for the entire year, house the coffee I sip. There is something calming about this pink; something that feels elegant and sophisticated and, dare I say it, homey. I put the pink coffee mug to my lips and, from the hours of 5 o’clock to 9 o’clock in the morning, the two of us are the dearest of friends.

Money has always been a strange concept to me. Here were these arbitrary pieces of paper that had different numbers printed on them, and whatever number was printed somehow became more or less important compared to the rest of the pieces of paper. When I first moved to Chile and began using money with two thousand printed on it, to mean a simple $4 bucks, money became even more arbitrary; almost as if it were entirely made up. Maybe that’s why I don’t get upset these days when unexpected bills happen, or I need to make more money than I’ve ever had to before. Because at the end of the day, it’s merely another piece of paper — isn’t it?

There was a time when the small, economically depressed city of Binghamton, New York might as well have been the Big Apple. There was a time when I had only known one black person, had only eaten one type of food, had thought that growing up to become the meteorologist on the local news station would be my greatest of aspirations. And then, the United States issued me this little blue book that gave me permission to ask more questions than ever — and go seek out their answers. I still have a lot to learn, but as it turns out, wisdom doesn’t come with age — it comes while flying through the air.

Ash Ambirge, writer, speaker, teacher, and head mistress at The Middle Finger Project


Tools & Talismans is a personal painting project where I document {in watercolor} the tools and talismans of 100 different women — creators and healers, thinkers and makers, wordsmiths and visionaries. Join me for a year of Tools & Talismans — I'll be sharing a new painting with you every Wednesday.

I'd love to talk about creating illustrations for you! Do you have a project that needs some illustration? Think my work might be a good fit? Get in touch, I'd love to talk about your project with you!