Celebrating the artistry & “Eflchen” poetry of my long-time friend Karen

by faithgibson on December 14, 2015


Today’s post is devoted to my good friend Karen Damian, who I have known since the early 1970s, and mostly lived within 5 or 10 miles ever since. We often introduce ourselves as as “chosen” sisters.

I’m so pleased to have this opportunity to showcase her one of her wonderful “process”paintings and it’s matching “elfchen” poetry. More about that later. Suffice it to say that her diary of simple, yet elegant Elfchen poems is filled with beautifully crafted, 11-word works of literary art.

Since this website is dedicated to ideas that somehow qualify in the moment (at least in the author’s mind) as “One True Thing” (i.e. Truth with a capital T), I have been pondering how my 40-some year relationship with Karen can be captured in those terms. So hear goes.

Except for my siblings, my late husband and my own children, there is no one else in my life that I have known so well and for such a long time. While my sibling and children are still a core pillar of my life, these relationships are often complex, difficult and not altogether ‘dependable’. The word that comes to mind is “work”, as they continue to be relationships that i must ‘work’ at.

While I love my two brothers and my sister, and my three wonderful, smart, happy, fun adult children (truly and with all my heart), these relationships often fail to fill that hole in one’s soul that can only be filled by a ‘best friend’.

When it come to affectionately and freely sharing the last forty years of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, good times and bad as a ‘best friend’, Karen gets that singular honor. If there were an Olympic Gold metal in the High Art of Friendship, Karen would bring home the “gold” hands-down.

Without ever wavering, she has done all the things that epitomize the best ideal of ‘friendship’. She is generous with her time and resources, listens more than she talks (unfortunately, the same cannot be said of me!) is honest when asked her opinions about me and things that concern me, and is patient and non-judgmental while I am recounting my many wild and weird ideas about religion, politics and my latest nerdy techie topic. Best of all, she is consistently and persistently dependable in all kinds of ‘weather’ (both literal and figurative).

In simple but profound words, she is truly is ‘my best friend’. When i think of her, it is with an attitude of gratitude. My prayer is for the grace to be half as good a friend to her as she has always been to me.

Karen Damien (nee Swanson) was born into a big, intergenerational Swedish family in Stillwater, Minnesota. Her siblings, many other relatives and her married son Eric, daughter-in-law Cameron and Karen’s three grandchildren are still living in the wintery “Land of the Lakes“.

But I first met Karen when we were both transplants from the cold North country living in the very southern climate of Orlando, Florida. We were both single mothers with kids in grade school who, by happenstance, lived two doors from one other in a quiet and kid-friendly neighborhood with safe streets and lots of ‘play outside’ weather.

It also turned out that we attended the same church and had other single-parent friends in common. Karen and I and Ron Hardin, a divorced father with two sons, became close friends in the following months and soon our little tribe of seven kids between the three single parent coalesced into an informal extended ‘family’.

Out of practical necessity, almost everything we did together was kid-centric. Each family unit took turns cooking and hosting a communal evening meal at least once a week, and afterward we hung out while the kids played. We enjoyed many trips and outdoor excursions together in Florida, which is also a “Land of Lakes”, but much warmer water and weather.

Our blended families went on church outings, swam at local beaches and occassionally drove 60 miles to swim in the ocean at Cocoa Beach and Melbourne. While the kids played in the sand or chased each other up and down the beach, we adults walked along the shoreline, breathing in pure sea air and enjoying the open and inspiring vistas of the Atlantic ocean.

But change happens to even the happiest of circumstances. I grew up in Michigan in an area with rolling hills and a climate of four seasons famous for its ‘variety’.  In fact, Michiganders are found of saying “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change”. After 20 years of Florida’s constant summer weather, I missed the distant vistas and the changing of seasons.

My dream was to live somewhere that was not flat as a pancake, and had four distinct seasons but no bitter cold winters or driving on icy roads. For example, central Florida’s tallest natural location is only 384 ft and these little hills are the oddity.

I particularly missed my childhood experience of cool autumn weather that made the leaves turn those brilliant and breathtaking fall colors. With these two ideas in mind, I thought somewhere in the Carolinas would be perfect.  So in 1978 I accepted an assignment in a domestic Peace Corps project in North Carolina.

I began our big move by buying an older and mechanically-suspect VW van and then selling off everything we owned that wouldn’t fit into it. At this point in my own family’s life my 11 year-old son was living with his dad and did not want to move with us.  So my oldest daughter Shawn (14), and my youngest child Holly (9) packed all our possessions, including our calico cat ‘Sassafras’, into our Volkswagen van and headed north into the unknown.

About the same time, Karen’s sweetheart got a new job in California and so she and her son moved cross-country to join him. She and her sweetie were living in what I thought the most exciting of all places, Sin City itself (i.e. San Francisco).

When my VISTA assignment in North Carolina ended in October 1979, my daughters and I once again packed up our not-too-trusty VW van to join Karen on the West Coast, who had invited us to join them. With my favorite rocking chair lashed to the front bumper of our van, and large colorful signs on each side that read “San Francisco or Bust!”, we all (including the cat) headed west on a ‘wing and a prayer’. We had barely enough money for meals, gas and hotel rooms, assuming we didn’t have car trouble or other unexpected expenses, but fittingly arrived safe on All Hallow’s Eve.

At that time Karen was living in a third-floor walk-up studio with her 10 year-old son Eric, and despite the cramped quarters she welcomed us with open arms. For the next 12 months, the five of us all shared this tiny apartment over the Viking Sub Shop at the corner of Geary & Third Avenue in the Richmond district of San Francisco.

To the east, we had a bird’s eye view of the business next neighbor (the Toyota dealership) and a spectacular view of the classic dome atop the Jewish synagogue at the corner of Arguelo and Clement Street. From our west-facing window we could just barely see the tiniest sliver of the GoldenGate bridge, and watch with fascination as the fog come in on “little cat feet” every afternoon. When the wind was right, we heard the fog horns.

We all spent a lot of time in Golden Gate Park, which was one of our most favorite things to do. We talked about and worried about earthquakes (actually experienced a few very small ones) and devised our very own “disaster” plans. It mainly consisted of a place in Golden Gate Park where we were all to meet in case the “big one” happened.

What we hated most about living in a big and busy city was grocery shopping. Due to a very active bus stop (#33 Geary), there was no place to park the car in front of our building. Whoever was driving had to stop illegally in the bus-stop and stay behind the wheel, while the other one (and kids if available) had to carry each bag of groceries up three flights of stairs.

The other insurmountable problem was the woefully inadequate size of the apartment that allowed for virtually no private spaces for any of us. The two younger kids slept in the dinning room, while my poor teenage daughter was forced to occupy the floor in the hallway as both her sleeping quarters and erstwhile ‘bedroom’. Karen and I slept on mattresses on the floor in the living room. Fortunately Child Protective Services never had reason to question our living arrangements; I’m sure they would have accused us of being ‘unfit parents!

The other  serious problem of “big city” life was what to do about our cars, since on-street parking was our only choice. We often spent 20 or even 30 minutes circling the streets before we found a place. And if you should park one inch over the edge of someone’s driveway, they would call the police and have your car towed. As if that wasn’t enough of a hassle, San Francisco’s weekly and confusing street-cleaning schedule resulted in our VW van being towed away. In addition to the shock (actually thought it had been stolen), it cost $150 to retrive it from the impound lot.

Despite its ups and downs, that year in San Francisco was an amazing experience. I think Karen would agree with me when i say we have no regrets. But by October of 1980 changes were in the wind again. I moved down the SF peninsula to the small town of Palo Alto (home of Stanford University and iconic Silicon Valley inventors). A couple of new friends and I found a large house with 4 bedrooms for rent. A year or so later Karen also moved into that 4th bedroom.

Over the next 20 years the names and numbers of housemates changed, our kids, jobs, friends came and went, and many other things became radically different than before. People who know us well would be bored by these details, and those who don’t wouldn’t and shouldn’t care about them.

So I’ll just skip ahead to the next big and important chapter in Karen’s life, which was her marriage to Dick Damien, a wonderfully patient man who has been her husband now for the last 25 years. The two of them bought a bungalow  just a couple of miles from us, which has allowed Karen and I to continuing being fast friends of the highest order.

Introducing Karen’s Artistry

{Editor’s Note: MISSING –> info on Karen’s general artistic talents and the backstory of  her “process” paintings} 



About Elfchen Poetry

I’d never heard of Elfchens before Karen let me look at her diary of elfchen poems, one for everyday for the year 2015. As i read i became more and more impressed and enchanted. I had to Google the word when i got home before i really got the jest of it.

According to Grace Kerina’s websiteelfchens are not really a race of small elves, no matter how much it might sound like that.

Elf is the German word for eleven.  When –chen is added to a German noun, it confers a sense of being wee or dear. The word Elfchen is always capitalized, as are all German nouns. When translated into English, Elfchen is roughly elevenie (or in English, eleven-ish).

Elfchens are a specific poetic form that consists of a eleven words in five lines. Here is the example used on Grace’s web

Who says
where it is?
Perhaps it is actually

As you can see, the first line has one word, the second line has two words, the third has three, and the forth line has four. The last or 5th line is back to a single word.


Here are the two Elfchens written by Karen to go with the process painting in big photo above.


  Christmas 2015

  Enjoying the run-up

  Lights, decorations, baking, gifts




Peace, contentment

sweep over me

this life, this ordinary


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