Immersed in My Art, Finally

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Helen Frankenthaler

Please Do Not Disturb: That’s how I’ve felt these past few months, and even more so these past few weeks, so immersed in the work of finishing up my second novel, that I can’t spare the time to do anything else. And when I must take time away, I feel somewhat distraught or guilty, as if I’m cheating on a lover, or playing hooky from school. Even writing this now, feels like that, although I’ve been working eight hours straight since this morning.

I do this 7 days a week now and am making enormous progress. So I’m not complaining. I’m happy, if exhausted, at the end of the day, and looking forward to the next day of writing—revising mostly now, polishing, tying up loose ends, getting it ready to send off. My husband can’t understand how I can feel so exhausted sitting in a chair all day! It’s mental exhaustion, I try to explain. My mind feels washed out after 8 hours.

Even so, it feels good. There were many years when my problem with writing was the inability to find the time to write or the discipline to stay with it so long. So this is progress.

I wrote another blog post a few years ago about being “Immersed In One’s Art” using the same image of Frankenthaler. This is what I wrote then:

There’s something immensely satisfying to see Helen Frankenthaler immersed in her art this way. I found this image on Facebook, along with the following quotation:

“I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write . . . and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning . . . it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectabilty) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she ‘should’ be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Why is it we women (is it only women?) too often put our personal passions last in line behind all else?

I’m trying more and more to put those passions (my writing, painting, music-making) first on my list of to-do’s. But it’s hard. Somehow even blogging comes first, although it too is writing, a kind of art-making. Or at least I try to make it so.

Perhaps because I’ve set firmer deadlines for my blog, or I see it as a commitment I’ve made, to keep this up and running, to not let readers go too long without hearing from me. And blogging is just another way for me to “riff and rapture” about the things I love, to share what inspires me with the world.

Still, to imagine myself immersed in my art as she is in this photo, surrounded by bright splashes of color, my bare legs curled beneath me on the cold floor, and that Mona Lisa smile, that dark gaze . . . it does my heart good.

Yes, it does do my heart good, to be immersed in my writing this way—Finally. But it means I’ve been blogging less these days and will probably be doing less in the coming weeks as well. But I’ll be back to “riff and rapture” again before long. I promise.

Wonder & Worship, Poems for Easter

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The Sun, by Edvard Munch

Primary Wonder, by Denise Levertov

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.

And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

O Sweet Irrational Worship, By Thomas Merton

Wind and a bobwhite
And the afternoon sun.

By ceasing to question the sun
I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth

All these lighted things
Grow from my heart.

A tall, spare pine
Stands like the initial of my first
Name when I had one.

When I had a spirit,
When I was on fire
When this valley was
Made out of fresh air
You spoke my name
In naming Your silence:
O sweet, irrational worship!

I am earth, earth

My heart’s love
Bursts with hay and flowers.
I am a lake of blue air
In which my own appointed place
Field and valley
Stand reflected.

I am earth, earth

Out of my grass heart
Rises the bobwhite.

Out of my nameless weeds
His foolish worship.

Never Say “Never Again” Again, Unless We stop It This Time, Now

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Man mourning a body outside an apartment complex in Kharkiv after airstrikes (Getty image)

If we say “never again” while doing nothing to stop the atrocities going on in Ukraine, then we are lying to ourselves and each other, and being the worst kind of hypocrite there is.

If we collectively—the U.S., NATO, the United Nations, European Union—have the power to stop Putin now, to put boots on the ground and planes in the air to push him out of Ukraine, and if we do not do it, then we are no better than he is.

He is acting on his worst instincts because it personally benefits him and his ambitions. We are refusing to act on our best instincts for fear it could personally harm our own self-interests.

If we have the power to stop this and fail to act, then we too are morally responsible for the slaughter we refuse to stop.

It’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself, as we are doing. Although giving them all they ask for would be a step in the right direction—-the planes and tanks, and no-fly zone, and humanitarian safe-zones. To merely arm them, impose sanctions, is a safe way for us to feel good about ourselves. But it is being dishonest and cowardly.

Did we not promise to defend their security when they willingly gave up their nuclear weapons? If only they had kept them, they would be safe now. If only we had promised at the outset to put boots on the ground if Putin attacked, to defend their borders as we had promised to do so then, they would be safe now.

Surely there is some leader somewhere n the world who has the moral integrity and courage to step within Ukraine’s borders and fight with them.

You would think Israel which had been created as a haven for those who fled the Holocaust, who cried “Never again” when it was their own people were being slaughtered, would have been the first to put boots on the ground in Ukraine.

You would think Germany, who to their shame had allowed Hitler to rise to power and slaughter millions, would be the first on the battlefield to make up for the great wrong it had done in the past.

You would think the United Nations, which was created for this very purpose, to say “never again” to this kind of slaughter of civilians and naked aggression of one nation over its neighbor, would do more to stop this. And yet it can’t even expel the naked aggressor from its ranks. Zelensky is right. It should dissolve itself because it has proven to be a feckless power.

You would think the United States who professes to be the Leader of the Free World and the Defender of Democracy would stand on the battlefield with Ukraine, rather than merely arm Ukraine to defend itself. Or else we should relinquish these titles for all time.

Our Generals have already said that to allow Putin to win this war would be a global catastrophe. It would embolden him to attack the Balkans and start another World War. If that is true, then we should be putting all our efforts into ending this war as quickly as possible. And if we and our allies put boots on the ground we would win this war. Putin would be defeated, the catastrophe averted.

Yet we continue to hold back . . . . why?

Because it could trigger a nuclear war? Yet we are committed, so we say, to defending every inch of NATO territory should Putin invade it, which could also trigger a nuclear war. So it’s okay to do so if Putin enters the Balkans, but not if it enters Ukraine? What kind of intellectual sophistry is this? What kind of moral high-ground our we holding with this kind of reasoning?

If we had allowed Ukraine to enter NATO when it had tried so hard to do so, we would have put boots on the ground then. Or would we? Would we have stood back even then? Will we do so when Putin wins this war because of our cowardice and enters a NATO country? I wonder.

And I’m sure Putin wonders too. I’m sure he’ll be willing to gamble that his threat of a nuclear attack will always allow him to win whatever war he decides to start. And I fear he will be right.

If we do not do everything within our power to stop Putin now, we will be like little OliverTwist holding out our empty bowl, saying “More, please” to Putin and to every tyrant in the world. And we will deserve the bitter porridge they serve us.

Faith Ringgold’s Story-Telling Tapestries

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Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach (1988)

The richness of Faith Ringgold’s textured artwork dazzles me. She had been ignore for so long in the artworld, but at the age of 91 she is being celebrated for the truly amazing and influential artist she always was and a lifetime of work to prove it. Much of her earlier work was dark, documenting dark times and political struggle. She was ever an activist and continues to be. But so much of her work expresses a joyful celebration of life and art and story-telling. You can see more of her art and read about her life here.

Groovin’ High, 1996
Sonny’s Bridge (1986)
Matisse’s Model: The French Collection Part I, #5 (1991)
Dancing at the Louvre
Slave Rape # 2 – Run You Might Get Away (1972)
American People Series #15: Hide Little Children (1966)
Ancestors Part II, 2017 “The children of the world were inspired to rise up from their beds to join their ancestors in their song and dance for a better world. They sang: We are young but we are many, filled with love not hate. Let us work for a world of peace.”
The Woman’s House (2019) Mural at Riker’s Island of inmates she interviewed.

This Sea Within, Without – A Poem

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by Joaquin Sorolla

I wrote this poem for a novel I’m writing about love and war in Central America. It’s written in the voice and style of a 19th century poet about the ceaseless, ongoing struggles that have ravaged his land since before the Conquistadors. As they have been going on Ukraine since the Vikings plundered tribal villages, before the Mongols came and slaughtered all of them, before Hitler, before Putin.

This poem speaks to the ceaseless cycles of peace and plunder that haunt our histories and our hearts, but also to the spirit of the people who weather such storms. Although it will no doubt undergo further revisions before the novel is ready to hand over to my agent, I wanted to share it with you now, in honor of the brave spirit of the Ukrainian people who are weathering this storm today.

This Sea Within, Without

This sea that lies within, without, all things,
All bodies, minds, and soaring hearts and grasping hands,
Past, present, and evermore.
This ceaseless stirring, this Siren’s call, these froward thoughts
And listless rhythms that know no end.
This urgent quest.

This sea that it throws itself upon our shores
With grand bluster, heaving boulders and breaking cliffs,
Leaving in its wake a disaster of debris,
The detritus of society and small broken things,
A child’s bracelet, an empty bottle, shattered shells and battered lives,
Fallen faces like
Flies rummaging through abandoned seaweed.

This sea within, without, unbroken in its vastness,
Spreads out like a calm comforting blanket of blue, its lacy
Traces whispering secrets in our ears,
Seducing us with sleepless dreams as it
Reaches across the sand to wash our feet and sings its pleasure in the sun,
Its tender kisses everywhere,
Its mesmerizing music everywhere,
Calling children, and lovers young and old, to its shores,
To romp among its waves like playful porpoises,
Safe as sand.

And so it lures and soothes and laments,
Before it lashes out, breaking
Whole continents apart
Leaving all in ruin.

This Sea within, without,
Pouring across the centuries in
Endless rhythmic cycles of peace and plunder,
Plunder and peace,
Ever restless, relentless.

This sea within, without
Each heart, each nation, each age and eon.
We and sea and all that lies between,
Taking our pleasure where we may in warm, balmy breezes,
Finding our strength in broad strokes as we surf and swim,
Taking our lives into our hands as we resist
Its uprising roar
As it crashes down and drowns our dreams.

O drowning heart, O vale of tears
O lovers lost, O sons and daughters,
O detritus of raging storms,
Be not dismayed.
As ceaseless as the turmoil is, so is the spirit that rides upon it
And survives to rise again.

Savor the sun’s sweet kisses and the balmy breezes,
Hold them close, don’t let go.
Even when the broad drowning seas rise up and crash down,
Do not despair.
Tis the way of weather,
And of weathered hearts, and leathered minds,
And grasping hands, and the sons of man.

So we lay our hearts and histories
Upon such shores as storms do rage
And retreating bare all to see
Such luster still in the strong arms and stalwart hearts
Of souls long lost.

Where all that’s left of mighty ships’ splintered rails
And torn sails sink below and wait to rise
Once more. Once more.

By Deborah J. Brasket, 2022, from the novel This Sea Within

The poem is read by the protagonist of my novel on a plane heading toward a war-torn country in Central America in 1973. On the plane she’s been reading the history of Latin America starting with the conquistadors and the destruction of two major civilizations that had persisted for 3500 years until the Cortez arrived. The history continues with ongoing struggles of so many countries in Central America to become independent nations, and then to break the hold of one brutal dictator after another, each propped up by the United States after the Monroe Doctrine went into effect. The constant civil wars and guerrilla warfare in the region, and her own country’s involvement in that is disheartening, to say the least, to the young, idealistic woman.

But then she reads the poem of one of the most cherished poets from that region which speaks to this very condition of constant strife, and surprisingly, it heartens her.

I don’t know if it will hearten you as well, but I thought I’d offer it here in that spirit.

Truth-Telling in Poetry and Art: The Horrors of War and Human Complacency

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegal the Elder

I read a brilliant piece in The New York Times this morning about how suffering hides in plain sight.

The article features Bruegal’s paintings and W. H. Auden’s poetry. It’s about how human suffering and complacency go hand-in-hand. How it’s all, perhaps, a matter of perspective. How distant are we from the suffering: Is the war taking place in our city or on a distance continent? Are we watching its horrors on TV, or have we moved on to sipping wine with friends on the patio?

Here’s the poem by Auden that expounds on the painting above by Brueghal.

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The article is also a master course in reading poetry and art. It explains how lines five and 8 refer to the miraculous birth of Christ that the aged are waiting for. This glorious occasion is juxtaposed in lines 5 and 6 with the skating children oblivious to the coming slaughter by Herod’s hand.

The Brueghal painting depicting it is pictured below

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegal

The following five lines in Auden’s poem refer to another Bruegal painting where dogs chase and play with each other while soldiers slaughter a village.

Horror is hard to sustain. It dulls, it grows weary, it becomes a drudgery. The mind drifts. Life goes on. The sun continues to rise. We need its warmth and comfort. The trill of the songbird still thrills us. We need this too.

Yet all of our justified condemnation and horror at Putin’s brutal bombing of innocent civilians should not allow us to forget the 400,000 Vietnamese whose lives were lost when Agent Orange was sprayed over their villages and forests, destroying all of it. For what? Are we more innocent than Putin?

It’s a matter of perspective. That was then, this is now. A year or two or three from now, will the horror of this war fade? It will. Unless this all breaks out into WWIII as some fear.

Below is Auden’s poem on the day after Hitler invaded Poland. It’s a long poem so I’ve included only the 1st, 5th, and last two stanzas, the 8th and 9th. You can read the whole poem at this link.

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” another poet wrote. We will. We have no choice. The plowing, the fishing, the wine and the laughter must go on.

Isn’t that our fervent wish for the people of Ukraine, that they regain this normalcy? Even Vietnam has rebounded. Forgiven us.

Life must go on, we say from our safe, complacent distance. As it does, with or without us. Despite everything there’s a new birth taking place every second of every day.

The joy and sorrow, beauty and brutality of the human condition are woven into one seamless tapestry, glorious on one side and a hopeless tangle of knots on the other. All a matter of perspective, which side we are looking at in the moment.

Auden once said that the only true value of poetry and art is in the truth-telling that disenchants and disintoxicates.

Well, that’s one value of truth-telling for sure. But turn it over and the other is the truth-telling that enchants and intoxicates. Both are necessary. Especially in times like these.

Blue & Gold: The Colors of Democracy in Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

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Blue and gold are my favorite colors, so much so I created a Pinterest page named Blue & Gold to capture those radiant images that inspire me.

Now it’s the Ukrainians’ fight for freedom that inspires me, under that radiant banner of Democracy. So I’m sharing some blue and gold images from my page today in their honor, although I wish I could stand with them and fight at their side. I wish the world would.

I don’t think it’s enough to cheer them from the sidelines, or to merely send in arms and ammunition. If my neighbor’s home was under attack by Putin’s thugs, if their family and way of life was being threatened, would I simply stand at edge of my yard and not step foot into theirs to help them? Even if their attackers threatened me and my home if I did, would I bow to such threats?

And would I refuse to do so only because they did not happen to belong to my NATO club? I think not. Honor and love and the Golden Rule would not allow me to do so. If my home was under attack, wouldn’t I want my neighbor to come to my aid?

Why is it we are leaving Ukraine to fight this war alone? I know what the fear is—that doing so would start a World War III. But when we stood by and allowed Hitler to take over the Czech Republic in 1939, it didn’t stop world War II from happening. It seems a travesty to me that we are repeating past mistakes. Stop the bully now, don’t wait for him to defeat Ukraine and hope by doing so he won’t attack some weaker country later on. It will only encourage him.

There’s little I can do here to help the Ukrainians, but I dedicate this page to them and the colors of their flag. And I will pray for them. As well as for the United States: to do the honorable thing, the just and righteous thing, to step across that border and help them as the Golden Rule and love of Democracy and Freedom and plain decency demands.

by Odilon Redon
by Van Gogh
The Good Samaritan by Van Gogh
Hildegard of Bingen self portrait
Ukraine Kiyv image free on Unsplash

Romancing Life in Art, Poetry & Music

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The Siesta by Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla

I’ve been in a romantic mood lately. Both in the sensual and spiritual sense. This lust for life. This sense of wanting to “crack open our ribs and merge with” . . . well, everything.

After writing my valentine for lovers in my last post, I’ve been reading more of Neruda’s love poetry. The one below inspired this post. It too speaks to that sense of being one with what one loves.

I’ve paired it with two other Spanish romantics, Sorolla’s art, and the Spanish guitar music of Jacob Gurevitsch. His song “If Da Vinci Was a Girl” is a favorite, and the accompanying video speaks to that tender regard for the everyday beauty so often overlooked. As does the painting above of the artist’s wife and daughters at siesta. Those lush sensuous lines falling across a cool grassy knoll. Sigh! Makes me want to curl up beside them. Enjoy!

The Potter

Your whole body holds
a goblet or gentle sweetness destined for me.
 
When I let my hand climb,
in each place I find a dove
that was looking for me, as if
my love, they had made you out of clay
for my very own potter’s hands.
 
Your knees, your breasts,
your waist,
are missing in me, like in the hollow
of a thirsting earth
where they relinquished
a form,
and together
we are complete like one single river,
like one single grain of sand.
 
—Pablo Neruda
 

Heat & Heart, A Valentine for Lovers

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Marc Chagall

1.

I crush her against me. I want to be part of her. Not just inside her but all around her. I want our rib cages to crack open and our hearts to migrate and merge. I want our cells to braid together like living thread.

— Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies. 

2.

Sonnet XII

Full woman, fleshly apple, hot moon,
thick smell of seaweed, crushed mud and light,
what obscure brilliance opens between your columns?
What ancient night does a man touch with his senses?

Loving is a journey with water and with stars,
with smothered air and abrupt storms of flour:
loving is a clash of lightning-bolts
and two bodies defeated by a single drop of honey.

Kiss by kiss I move across your small infinity,
your borders, your rivers, your tiny villages,
and the genital fire transformed into delight

runs through the narrow pathways of the blood
until it plunges down, like a dark carnation,
until it is and is no more than a flash in the night.

— Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems.

Erhard Loblain

3.

Where did love begin? What human being looked at another and saw in their face the forests and the sea? Was there a day, exhausted and weary, dragging home food, arms cut and scarred, that you saw yellow flowers and, not knowing what you did, picked them because I love you?

— Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping.

4.

love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear;
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
the truth more first than sun more last than star

— e. e. cummings

Gustav Klimt

 

The Enigma of Being Both Watcher and Watched

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By Gertrude Friske

Enigma

I am both watcher
and watched.
The woman walking in her garden
and the one watching her walk.
Two halves, back to back.
Both named and namer.
I am the cat in Schrödinger’s box
and the one lifting the lid.

Deborah J. Brasket, 2021

I came across this poem in a notebook I keep and decided to share it.

I’ve always had this sense of twoness. But the more I’ve learned about the nature of reality, the metaphysical as well as the quantum mechanics of it, the more sense it makes. And the more comfortable I’ve become with it, the more comforting it seems. I rather like it now. This sense of spaciousness.

It wasn’t always so. It’s something I struggled with when I was young. A sense that I wasn’t quite normal, or even quite real. I felt like I was loosely “tethered” to reality. I was in it, but also floating a bit above it at the same time.

It was hard to be in the moment, because I was always standing at the side of myself, watching. It was a bit like trying to carry on a telephone conversation when you hear the echo of your own voice at the same time.

I wrote a short story about that experience called “Fine and Shimmering,” which is how the character Sheri experienced the “tether” that kept her somehow connected to earth, to reality. I blogged about the story in “The Lightness of Being, Unbearable or Otherwise.”

Sheri was always tempted “to take that fine and shimmering thread between sharp teeth and snip it clean through. To drift aimlessly, like the merest wisp of cloud, a lingering trace of dawn, upon an otherwise immaculate sky. Awaiting that final dispersal, into the blue.”

My actual experience of the “twoness” I felt growing up was nothing nearly so drastic or literal. And in the end, I never actually “let go” of it. Instead I settled into it more comfortably by embracing the Zen notion of “not-two.” Now it’s the division between subject and object that seems more ephemeral and “not real.” I wrote at the end of my blog post this:

When that wall of “otherness” disappeared, I felt deeply connected to this ephemeral world. I felt a lightness of being that is “unbearable” only in the sense of being too sweet, too rich, too beautiful “to bear.” And so I didn’t try to hold onto it. I just let it wash though me.

I read an article in Scientific American yesterday called “Does Quantum Mechanics Reveal That Life Is But a Dream?” and discussed it with my husband. Then last night I had a dream in which several strange things were taking place and so turned to my husband, who was also in the dream, and said with amusement, “Maybe that article was right and this really is a dream.”

Only I didn’t think I was dreaming at the time. It all seemed quite real. Until I actually woke up, of course. Now it’s kind of like that old conundrum: Am I a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?

I rather like the idea that we could be both. And perhaps we are, or will be, when this wall of otherness finally does fall away. Maybe there is just “not-two.” Maybe the enigma is all there is.