Love at first sight it definitely wasn’t in the case of Dawn Greeley. Nor was it at second or third. She was an artist, you see, and I, well, I’m good at putting things in order. She saw the big picture, and I, the pesky details. She was larger than life, and I prefer near invisibility.
And so it went two years ago, as Dawn assumed the chairmanship of the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council, stepping up from vice-chairman, while I continued as secretary.
Here on the Island, where many souls wash ashore seeking ransom from earthy business in an unscathed earthly beauty, we often get to know someone only at the tail end of an extraordinary life. And to get to know Dawn Greeley was to marvel at a life lived with eyes wide open, not fearless but always willing to try, as she described it, to dance with the next partner, welcome or not, who cut in.
The metaphor of dance was one she used often in speaking of cancer. We argued once over this. Imagine. Less than six months left, and this woman was arguing about the better metaphor to use to keep company with illness.
With muscular dystrophy I’d always been the warrior woman. Bam! Kerpow! Kaboom! But Dawn told me I had it all wrong. “Learn to dance with it,” she said. “Stop fighting all the time.”
“How can I dance? I can hardly walk,” I shot back. But I knew what she meant.
Dawn was beautiful, really beautiful, no question about it. How often I’ve noticed that people who aren’t assume that beauty always comes naturally, easily. Not so in Dawn’s case, not so in many cases.
Dawn viewed her outer shell as an artwork of a kind. That’s what I thought when I first laid eyes on her. The carefully coifed raven hair, nut-colored skin (she wintered in Palm Springs), a pretty dress with good lines and snappy pattern, her makeup as if a pro had done it. She was always perfectly herself and nothing but.
But if you were to take the daily assembling of this lovely package as a sign of vanity, you’d be sadly mistaken. No, Dawn’s being put together was her way of assuring herself, and, more importantly, those around her that her life was going on despite the insults and depredations of cancer. Dawn’s outer beauty was her way of saying, “I’m okay, don’t worry about me, let’s get on with it.”
Above all, Dawn wanted not to burden but to light the world. She was a candle burning low, straining nonetheless to throw her beams far into the dark. People meeting her for the first time had no inkling of how ill she was, and that was the way she wanted it.
Another art Dawn had mastered was gratitude. She didn’t have time for self-pity and couldn’t abide people who did. She felt lucky, she said, to have had the life that she did. In the end, it was all about the journey, and she would not have missed a moment of it.
She also would never miss a chance to laugh. No feeding of grudges, no stockpiling of regrets for her. And Dawn was just plain irreverent. Boy, was she irreverent, especially about some of the overweening gods of the Boston medical establishment. Why, she talked right back to them if she found their manner dismissive. Brava! “Nobody knows me the way I know me, least of all them,” she declared.
In her last years, Dawn dedicated her mind and heart to the cultural council, service for which the Island’s arts, humanities, and interpretative sciences communities owe her a hearty thanks. How remarkable now to look back at all the time and energy she poured into this work when she had so little left of either.
Although she supported many of the Vineyard’s established artists, Dawn’s overarching concerns as chairman were the encouragement of new artists from whom the public had not heard before and the redefinition of the types of projects that fell within the parameters of the council’s aegis.
She spoke of the latter goal at a community meeting last June. From my notes I quote: “We need to encourage more projects about the Island itself, like projects about our agriculture . . . it could be film or painting or something brand-new. I don’t know. Let the artists develop it. But we need to encourage projects that say something in a new way about our unique Island culture.”
As an artist herself, Dawn understood many of the challenges faced by our grant applicants; but as a former businesswoman, she also understood the brass tacks of the council’s operation and the imperative of its guidelines. The juggling act cannot have been easy, but of course Dawn made it seem so. I’m glad she was there for us.
No, it wasn’t love at first sight, or at second or third. But it always seems to start out rocky with the people who are going to mean something. Maybe it’s like art.
I remember this professor at college telling us that some art was all about tension, about the unexpected combinations of disparate elements, and that moving even one of those elements would send the whole thing crashing to earth. But when everything was where it belonged, it was a cohesive whole that was righter than right.
Dawn the creative spirit invited me into the artwork that was her life, and after I raised my nose from my notebook long enough to really listen to what she had to say, I found my place in that rich and vibrant tapestry. Thank goodness I came to my senses.
Dead she is not, but departed, the poet writes, for the artist never dies. Godspeed on your journey, Dawn. Thanks for picking me up along the way.
Pia Webster lives in Edgartown.