Embracing Joy, A New Year Resolution

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Like many, I’ve been finding it difficult to write my normal New Year’s “Looking Back, Looking Forward” blog post. Looking back at 2021 is just too messy and confusing with so many conflicting emotions and dimmed expectations. And looking forward . . . ?

Of all the New Year resolutions I’ve read this year, my favorite is by writer Chuck Wendig.

This year, I’m resolving to find the joy in the work, and to embrace that joy the way a person in the ocean would cling to a piece of floating debris.”

I’m with you, Chuck. Now has never been a better time for living in the present and squeezing every ounce of joy out of everything that comes our way.

“If not now, when? If not us, who?” Remember that old activist chestnut?

I never thought to apply it to embracing the here and now of joy. But honestly, it works. And it’s not as selfish as it might seem. If we fill our hearts and minds with the simple joys at hand, and stick with it despite all that would tempt us to turn away, the joy that fills us is sure to spill over to all around us.

My simple solution to a world gone awry! But hasn’t it done so again and again over the ages?

Maybe in times like these our purpose should be to focus on the joy at hand and multiply it.

I’ve written before about the dichotomy of wanting to “savor the world and save it” at the same time. It’s worth saving only because it’s worth savoring.

This year, I think I’ll just do the savoring. And trust that’s my small part of the saving.

[BTW – Chuck’s post about his resolution is a joy to read, for writers and non-writers alike.]

“Isn’t It a Pity,” A Fitting Duet for MLK Day

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George Harrison & Nina Simone duet: Isn't It a Pity (touching remix!) in  2021 | Nina simone, Duet, Remix

If you’ve never heard Nina Simone’s version of George Harrison’s song “Isn’t it a Pity,” I can’t think of a more fitting day to do so. While Harrison wrote the song about the pain caused by broken relationships, Simone takes it to a whole new level. Small changes in the lyrics and the way she uses her incredibly heart-breaking voice to wring out every emotive nuance turns the song into something much larger than what it had been before. It’s about when societies break down, when our humanity tears apart, when we forget about who we are or could be, when we fail to see all the beauty around us, including inside us.

Joe Taysom wrote the following in Far Out Magazine about how Simone transformed Harrison’s song:

“[Simone’s] voice is one of the most incredible sounds that has ever graced the earth so when you mix it with George Harrison’s mercurial songwriting then you’ve got an emphatic mix and her cover of the former Beatles guitarist’s track ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ is a true delight. . . . . [Her]11-minute cover feels more like theatre than it does music as her voice takes the listener on a rollercoaster of emotions where she makes every word that came from Harrison’s pen years previously come to life. It was this ability to express another’s emotion which elevated Simone to legendary status and it shines on this effort.”

The song meshes so well with Martin Luther King’s messages of love:

“At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”

“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Simone’s version is long, 11 minutes, but I hope you will listen all the way to the end. I think you’ll be glad you did.

The Radical Humanism in Alice Neel’s Artwork

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I knew nothing of Alice Neel or her artwork until I came across a retrospective of her at the MET in my newsfeed. It’s not the kind of art I’m usually drawn to and yet it struck me full in the face. I could not look away. It was those faces looking back at me, steely-eyed, or curious, defiant, indifferent—each face imposing in its own way. Each strong and vulnerable at the same time. All their frailties exposed as well as the undeniable beauty of their imperfections. And even more so, what impresses is the precise and utter uniqueness of their individual humanity.

For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.’’

So writes Alice Neel of her artwork, and that’s what I saw there—the dignity and the eternal importance–of each person in those portraits. That’s what she revealed.

Raw, caustic, gritty. All the nicety, sentimentality, and usual clichés stripped away. Leaving the viewer, this one at least, feeling raw, exposed, vulnerable herself. Stripped down to that one commonality that unites us—-our fatal flaws and the dignity by which we bear them. We see this in all her paintings.

“Two Girls, Spanish Harlem,” 1959.

We see it in the careless and somber curiosity of the two restless girls gazing at the artist intent upon capturing their likeness. How can you look away from those eyes? Or the ones in the next portrait.

“Margaret Evans Pregnant,” 1978.

This distended body of the pregnant woman whose “deer-in-the-headlights” face reveals all the expectant wonder and uncertainty of what lies before her.

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The close-eyed submission on the face of the proud artist Andy Warhol as he allows the indignities of an abused body to be revealed.

You Gonna Finish That? What We Can Learn From Artworks In Progress : NPR

The dark brevity of a young Vietnam draftee who expresses the resignation and uncertainty of a future that is left sketched so lightly before him.

Alice Neel's Portraits of Difference | The New Yorker

The weary warmth and love of the breast-feeding mother, and the helplessness and hunger of the child who so desperately depends upon her.

John Perreault, 1972 - Alice Neel - WikiArt.org

The somber “back at ya” gaze of the nude man in all his hairy splendor, completely vulnerable to the female gaze in a role reversal.

Alice Neel's Paintings Meet The Moment At The Met | KRWG

Then there’s the last self-portrait of Neel herself toward the end of her long career, gazing away into the distance with a kind of calm resignation or disregard, while the bulk of the portrait is filled with the lines and planes of a full, well-used, aging body. What we leave behind. What was dear to us and others. What will be no more.

But for now here she is, her body open and on display in all its imperfect glory. She dares us to look away from our own mortality. But also invites us to see the “dignity and eternal importance” of each and every one of us.

Rainy Morning Reveries in Photos

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We’ve been blessed with more than usual rainfall on the central coast of California recently. I love the way the gray skies and damp, rain-soaked surfaces around our home make the colors seem more rich and vibrant. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. Wet cement and a shovel can look like abstract art. While fallen tree branches take on the purple glow of a Fauvist painting. Even a little hummer left behind this winter came out to dazzle me with its red-throated splendor. I hope you enjoy these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Spinning Tales, It’s in our Bones

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Illustration by James Gurney

Story-telling is in our bones. It rises through us like sap through roots and leaves into the air. It began when galaxies spun star-dust into the atoms that spin still through our bodies, reminding us that the stories of our births go back eons and stretch far away into a future we are spinning still.

The poem below by Lisel Mueller says it all, and inspired this post.

Why We Tell Stories

I
Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground

and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers

and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened

and learned to speak

2
We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us

and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees

3
Because the story of our life
becomes our life

Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

and none of us tells it
the same way twice

Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them

and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and …

Lisel Mueller, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. (LSU Press October 1, 1996)

O Holy Night

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The single-most, salient symbol of Christmas, for me, is a shining star in the night sky.

It’s what wakened the shepherds and fell them to their knees, what mesmerized the Magi and led them across a wild desert with precious gifts in hand. It’s what shone above a humble dwelling, revealing a holy trinity–mother, father, child. It’s what revealed the Christ, a promise of hope, salvation, peace on earth, and goodwill toward all.

It’s what leads us each year away from our mundane, daily lives to a world full of wonder, magic, and mystery. It’s what drops us to our knees in recognition of the vastness and beauty of the universe, and our own humble and radiant place within it.

For me Christmas will forever be wrapped in the silence of a starry night, the background against which the beautiful pageantry and rituals and traditions of Christmas unfold.

All unite in igniting that sense of awe and wonder and delight, of humility and holiness:

The Christmas tree all aglow in the dark, pointing upward to the heavens.

The magical whimsy of that great gifter, Santa, driving his sleigh across a night full of stars.

The children tucked in their beds as their fondest wishes magically descend in the night to await the first light.

Whole streets full of houses ablaze in the night, inviting the gasps of wonder and delight in the young at heart.

Candles shining in a still, dark church as voices unite and rise in songs of joy and adoration.

All are mere reflections and whimsical mimicry of that first night of wonder so long ago. It’s what brought us, and still brings us, to our knees when we realize all that childlike wonder and delight, humility and awe, generosity and love and innocence, lies deeply embedded in each one of us.

It signifies a promise of hope, salvation, and wholeness. Of identity with out own Christ-like nature, our own unity with the divine.

We are that shining star in a dark night.

We are those humble shepherds and adoring Magi.

We are that infant cradled in the holy Trinity.

We are that promise of hope and salvation and holiness.

Christmas is the Christ, and a bright star in a dark night is what leads us to him, to our own humble rebirth full of awe and wonder: the recognition of the Christ in each of us.

May the peace and power and glory of the Christ be with you all this Christmas.

GiottoScrovegni18AdorationoftheMagi1
Painting ‘Adoration of the Magi,’ by Giotto, showing the comet in Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Veneto, Italy.

Poetry Making and the Art of Awe

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“Spirit of the Night”, 1879, John Atkinson Grimshaw

I’ve been working on a poem I began here on this blog. It is a process, a gentle undoing and reweaving. An opening and letting go.

Recently a confluence of events inspired me to write a new ending. First I read an article on the importance of helping children discover a sense of awe and how beneficial that is, making us more curious, more humble and altruistic. Taking them on nature walks was one way it suggested.

Then only days after I learned about my 9-year old granddaughter’s startling discovery that Santa isn’t real. It was a blow to her, although she had begged to know the truth. What about the Easter Bunny? she asked. Horror upon horrors. The Tooth Fairy? she cried in alarm. Even the Elf on a Shelf, alas, poor dear.

I shared her pain. It seems only yesterday I took her for a walk in the meadow behind our home after it had rained the night before. We were searching for toadstools to see if fairies might still be sheltering beneath them. We found patches of bright green moss and ran our fingers along the soft furry carpet knowing how fairies like to danced there in moonlight. We imagined them wearing the silvery, pearl-studded gowns made from the spider webs glittering with raindrops we found nearby.

Why does the mind devise such dreamy comparisons? What is its purpose? To inculcate the capacity to marvel? To help us see beyond the ordinary sense of things (moss, toadstools) to their vast potential? To encourage us to see the fractal similarities between disparate things? There is something important and necessary in such devising. It feeds the soul by giving free rein to the imagination. It helps us to see beyond the surface of things, to look for the invisible within the seen, and inspires us to create our own works of wonders.

To marvel at a tree, to find awe in it, we must see it with new eyes. It must come alive in our minds. We must see the sap flowing upward beneath the bark from root to leaves. We must see the dark labyrinth of gnarled roots below the ground. We must hear the whisper of voices flowing through the neural-like network of fungi as one tree communes with another. We must see autumn leaves like high-wire dancers letting go of all they’ve ever known so they can twirl for one endless moment in the air before falling gently on their sleeping sisters. All of this is true, scientifically speaking. None of it is false.

I wrote the poem Field Notes from Within as if I was a student of physiology wandering through the fields of my own body, looking for those awesome wonders within, noting how well the part serves the whole. Just as we might when taking a child into the forest as that article suggested to discover for herself a sense of wonder in the world that envelopes and sustains us.

What could be more awe-inspiring than the human body? Than a beating heart? Than the twirling atoms that comprise the very substance of all that exists? We, ourselves, are a marvel.

I’ve been searching for a way to end my poem, to perhaps make it more comprehensible to the reader. Do I end it as I did the first time, with “dervishes of devotion“? Or do I add clarity to that as I did in the second re-making? Is doing so like painting a second tail on a dragon, a redundant addition? Or does doing so make its eyes come alive and breath fire?

I do not know. But here is my latest trial and error. We’ll let it sit a moment and see.

I don’t know when this poem will ever be finished.

And that’s the marvel of every living thing that longs to be.

Field Notes from Within

My heart is a staunch defender of all
I am, beating with relentless passion
the wherewithal of my being.

My bowels are alchemists skilled in
diplomacy, sifting silver from dross
passing peacefully away.

My cells are seeds of a pomegranate,
deftly designed for simple pleasures,
lushly dense and sweetly sated.

My atoms are ballerinas, twirling
on ecstatic toes, arms flung wide,
faces like suns, dervishes of devotion.

Marvelous is the kingdom within and
without all things. Marvelous the Mind
that designs such things and marvels.

by Deborah J. Brasket, Revised December 2021

Albert Ryder, A Wild Note of Longing

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With Sloping Mast and Sinking Prow, by Albert Pinkham Ryder

He’s considered by many the father of American modern art, and yet I’d never heard of him until visiting the New Bedford Whaling Museum this October. I was stunned and mesmerized by what I saw, and astonished I’d never seen his work before. The exhibit “A Wild Note of Longing” was aptly named. The wildness of his images, the sense of mystery and romance, evokes a kind of longing of the spirit, of the heart, for something that lies just beyond our reach.

”Have you ever seen an inch worm crawl up a leaf or twig,” Ryder once wrote, ”and then, clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling for something to reach something? That’s like me. I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”

The Flying Dutchman, by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Apparently I’m not alone in that feeling of being struck by lightning when I first discovered Ryder’s paintings so unexpectedly (in a whaling museum!). The Flying Dutchman was the first painting I saw walking into the gallery. Since coming home I’ve being doing research and came across a lecture given by artist Bill Jensen on his first encounter with Ryder’s work: “[I] rounded a corner and discovered five small Ryder paintings salon hung. I felt as if I had been hit by lightning. I had never seen paintings that had such PRESENCE.”

‘I was struck by a LIGHT that seemed to burn from deep within them. I was struck by the painting’s intense DRAMA: their EMOTIONAL AND INTELLECTUAL GESTURING of every shape, every mark, every color to every shape, mark, and color; their weight of immense DENSITY and in the next instant their WEIGHTLESSNESS. They had a feeling that time had been COMPRESSED. They had that “SLAP IN THE FACE REALITY” that reveals powerful INVISIBLE FORCES in and around us. These paintings seem to be constructed of LIVING TISSUE.’ [Emphasis his. You can read the rest of his lecture notes here.]

Sea Tragedy, by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Of course I’ve always been drawn to images of ships at sea, and that’s part of the appeal. There’s so much drama here, so much movement, you can almost hear the waves beating against the hull, the shrieking of the wind in the sails, feel your body hefted by the waves as you grasp at the rails, mesmerized by the beauty and the wildness of it all.

I wrote a poem once called Night Howl about being on a hurricane watch aboard La Gitana one night in Pago Pago, Samoa. These images remind me of that poem and that night, and so many other moonlit nights at sea.

I wrote in that blog post: “Human consciousness is the mirror through which the universe sees and knows itself, and through which we see and know ourselves—the fullness of being, our primal past and present standing face to face.” That’s what I see in Ryder’s paintings, but it’s not just the sea images that move me. It’s also his use of color and composition, the elemental shapes and striking contrasts, the way light seems to emerge out of the paintings, and the themes he choses, so many drawn from myth and legends.

Below are a few more favorites, including what is considered his masterpiece–Jonah.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cdf1a78e121ab209243775993844744f.jpg
The Tempest, by Albert Pinkham Ryder
Begger Maid and the King, by Albert Pinkham Ryder
Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens, by Albert Pinkham Ryder
Jonah, by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Some say Ryder is a painter of dreams. But as Jensen says in his notes on Ryder: “This can be misleading unless one understands that dreams are reality condensed.” This is true of the myths and legends and Biblical stories that he uses as points of departure to reveal what lies below the surface of our common day experience—that “something more” we yearn for that lies so tantalizingly just beyond the reach of our fingertips.

Field Notes From Within, Take Two

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by Odilon Redon, 1904

I’ve revised the poem I posted yesterday. I think this version better captures the heart of it. Let me know what you think.

Field Notes From Within

Our heart is a staunch defender of all

we are, beating with relentless passion

the wherewithal of our being.

Our bowels are alchemists skilled in

diplomacy, sifting silver from dross

passing peacefully away.

Our cells are seeds of pomegranates,

deftly designed for simple pleasures,

lushly dense and sweetly sated.

Our atoms are ballerinas, twirling

on ecstatic toes, arms flung wide,

faces like suns, dervishes of devotion.

Our body is like a tree full of leaves,

bark, sap, lichen—tiny worlds, seemingly

separate. Yet called to serve one

great and common purpose—I Am

–by Deborah J. Brasket (2021 – revised)

Dervishes of Devotion, A Poem

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Detail from Edgar Degas painting

Field Notes from Within

My heart is a staunch defender of all
I am, beating with relentless passion
the wherewithal of my being.

My bowels are alchemists skilled in
diplomacy, sifting silver from dross
passing peacefully away.

My cells are seeds of a pomegranate,
deftly designed for simple pleasures,
lushly dense and sweetly sated.

My atoms are ballerinas, twirling
on ecstatic toes, arms flung wide,
faces like suns, dervishes of devotion.

by Deborah J. Brasket, 2021

I’ve revised this poem to better capture the heart of it, if you’d like to take a look and let me know what you think:

Field Notes From Within, Take Two