You Don’t Have to Love Them, Just Love

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A man lamented to an Elder in his Church that try as he might, he could not love his hyper-critical, unloving mother. The Elder told him, “My son, you don’t have to love her, you just have to love.”

That was a freeing thought to me years ago when I was having the same problem with a difficult-to-love mother. I knew I loved her, in the sense I cared about her happiness and well-being. But I was plagued by floods of unloving thoughts about her. Me being, probably, as hyper-critical of her as I believed she was of me, and just about everyone she met.

The Elder’s advise seemed to lift a heavy burden from my shoulders. I didn’t have to love the hyper-critical person, but I could be loving in my words and actions toward her, and gentle with myself for my shortcomings as well. I could love her humanity, her challenges, her struggles, and be compassionate toward her inability to be what I wanted, as well as compassionate toward my own inability to live up to my highest aspirations.

But how do we do that in these hyper-partisan times where so many people and political leaders acting out in ways that are hateful and violent and dangerously unreasonable? With the rise of tyranny and fear-mongering; the assault on truth, plain hard facts and overwhelming evidence? One worries about the fate of our nation and democracy itself, not to mention the fate of the world, plagued by firestorms, hurricanes, floods, with so little effort directed at making the changes needed to halt or even slow this global meltdown.

The world we love is being threatened by those we have come to hate. What is a loving-minded person supposed to do with all these intense, negative feelings and fears?

The answer is: You don’t have to love them. You just have to love.

But what do I “just love,” if not them? How can they be excluded if we’re “just loving” without a particular object to love?

Then I realized something, and it was like a hard, obstinate, ugly dam had been broken and the love I’d been withholding and resisting broke loose. The anger and resentment I’d been nurturing and justifying, and the fear that had been terrorizing me, were swept away.

The thing I realized is that genuine Love—the unconditional, not the personal kind —isn’t an add-on, something we choose or chose not to have. Genuine Love, the big kind with the big L, is the ground of being upon which all of us rest, that supports and sustains us all, the loving and unloving, the good and bad, the tyrant and saint.

We’re all delusional in one way or another. All living our lives on limited information and understanding about the world around us and each other, about what’s right and what’s wrong, about who we are, where we came from, and what our purpose is. Whether we like it or not, we’re going to rub up against each other and each other’s delusions, no matter what we do or how we chose to live. We can’t get out of it. We’re stuck with each other. And while things may get better for us personally, at the same time they are getting worse for others. And new challenges are on the way.

That’s where the compassion of genuine Love flows, from the realization that the one we are prone to hate or fear for their hateful deeds is just delusional, a rube to his own delusions, as we are to ours. Our sympathy, our love, extends to all of us, because we are all suffering, even while not condoning the acts that cause our suffering, and doing what we can to relieve it.

We can “just love” the whole human drama as it has rolled out over the centuries and through our own few days of existence, knowing that it will continue to roll on without us, perhaps forever in the way delusions always seem so real while they last.

But beneath all the drama that is heaving us about like storms at sea, is this deep sympathy, this oceanic peaceful presence of unconditional Love that supports and sustains us all even in the midst of all the turmoil we are experiencing.

Within that maelstrom, we each, like tiny bubbles thrown up and tossed about, clashing with each other, opposing or uniting, go about the business of being separate and apart until the delusion of our bubble of existence dissolves and we know each other as we always have been and always will be, an essential part of the underlying, unifying whole. Part of that tender, exuberant, endlessly creative flow of Love.

To sum it up: Don’t love “them,” just love “Us.”

This Metta (Lovingkindness) Prayer, which can be adapted by anyone to fit any circumstance, helps to bring that loving aspiration into focus:

In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease.
Whether they are weak or strong, great or humble, wealthy or needy, omitting none,
The wise or foolish, friend or foe, neighbor or stranger,
Those who have wronged us and those we have wronged,
Those who love us and those who do not,

May all beings be at ease!

May all beings have happiness and cause of happiness.
May all beings remain free from suffering and the cause of suffering.
May all beings remain unseparated from the sacred joy and that is free from sorrow,
May all beings rest in the boundless and all-inclusive equanimity that supports and sustains us all.

The Truth Will Always Be

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Abstract photo by James McLarnan – “Really wet window” from ThePhotoArgus.com

Every day I spend listening to music, sometimes stretches as long as five or more hours at a time, while I’m deep into my writing. Often I’m playing a list of my “likes” which includes a lot of music by Pat Metheny, who is considered one of the greatest contemporary jazz composers and innovators of our age.

Recently his “The Truth Will Always Be” came up, will its slow, melancholic build-up to a transcendent and ecstatic crescendo. One of my favorites. Its title speaks volumes and is a comforting reminder in these turbulent times.

No matter how many lies, big and little, are out there circling the globe, stirring up whirlwinds of trouble, trying to distort, obscure and obfuscate, they can do nothing to obliterate the truth, and the reality of all that is good and worthwhile in this world. The truth will always outlast and outshine the lies and campaigns of disinformation, hate, distrust, and fear. They will tarnish in time, grow stale, irrelevant, and crumble away, or wither from within.

But the truth will carry on and carry the day, moment by moment, in the tangible ways it has of expressing its reality to each of us.

Below are the lyrics to Metheny’s song, which expresses this truth. Read it while listening to his music.

And, in the meantime, may the truth be with be with you, my friends, on this lovely Monday morning here on the central coast of California.

And may the “truth that will always be” comfort those in places of the world not so lovely this morning.


The Truth Will Always Be

And every morning before I’m awake
I walk around the world to make sure she’s alright
And every evening ‘fore I bolt the door
I give the stars a stir to make sure they will spin all night
For I see people who will scratch
And spit and kick and fight
And I see nations war about whether
Right is left and whether wrong is right
And I know storms inside your head
Can amplify the plight
But no matter what the weather
You and the clouds will still be beautiful
No matter what the weather
You and the clouds will still be beautiful
And every Troy with wooden horse
I take to peaceful waters but can’t make him drown
And every Bastille that gets storm troopered
Hail to the chief comes raining, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’ down
And I’ve seen people conduct lightning
Down to a summer’s day
And I see nations playfully hurl
Snowballs packed with stones and clay
And I know rain inside your head
Can seriously put a stop to play
But no matter what the weather
You and the clouds will still be beautiful
No matter what the weather
You and the clouds will still be beautiful, so let it rain
And we see flying saucers, flying cups
And flying plates and as we trip down lovers lane
We sometimes bump into the gate and I know
Thunder in your head can still reverberate
But no matter what the weather
You and the clouds will still be beautiful
No matter what the weather
You and the clouds will still be beautiful
No matter what the weather
So let it rain, so let it rain, so let it rain
Just let it rain, so let it rain, so let it rain
So let it rain, just let it rain, so let it rain, so let it rain


Source: Musixmatch
Songwriters: Patrick Metheny
The Truth Will Always Be lyrics © Pat Meth Music Corp

A Sultry Simone Sunday

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Nina Simone On Intent And The Many Lifetimes Of Impact

I first become aware of jazz singer Nina Simone when I watched the film Before Sunrise, with a young Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. They meet by chance on a train in Europe and spend the day together walking the streets of Vienna and carrying on an endless lively conversation before he has to catch a plane home to the U.S.. In the final scene, they are at her apartment waiting until it time for him to leave. He puts on a recording of Nina Simone. She entertains him by describing what the sultry singer is like at live concerts, imitating her sexy talk and sexy walk. We watch him watching her, becoming more and more certain, he’s not going to make that plane.

Since then I’ve become a fan of Simone as well, her voice having, as one music critic puts it, a “magnificent intensity” that “turns everything—even the most simple, mundane phrase or lyric—into a radiant, poetic message”.

Three favorites are below, as well as the film clip of that final scene I was telling you about. If you are a romantic, like me, it’s worth watching.

Otherwise, skip to Simone, and have a sultry Sunday.

The Joy of Sailing in Song, Poetry & Art

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I came across this much beloved sailing poem recently, which captures so beautifully and vividly my own exuberant experiences at sea aboard La Gitana. I’ve paired it with paintings by the “Poet of the Sea” Winslow Homer, along with some classic sailing songs: Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” and Loggins and Messina’s “Vahevala,” which includes some beautiful sailing video as well as some amazing guitar, flute, and violin riffs.

There’s noting that captures the joy of summer more than sailing.

Sea Fever

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
A gray mist on the sea’s face and gray dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the seagulls crying.
I must down to the seas to the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover,
And quiet sleep and sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

by John Edward Masefield (English poet, writer 1878-1967)

A Glimpse Into the Studios (and Minds) of Famous Artists

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Georgia-O-Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe, 1953. Photo by Laura Gilpin (1891-1979).

Aside from her paint brushes, we don’t see much of Georgia O’Keefe’s studio here, but I couldn’t resist including her as the lead photo in this post based purely on the strength of her face and that hypnotic gaze: as if she can see right through you. There’s no doubt she’s an artist that commands attention.

By contrast below, Miro seems quite content to lean back in his rocking chair gazing serenely at the lifetime of artwork surrounding him. These two photos and the ones that follow say so much about what it means to be an artist.

I found them in a wonderful spread produced by Artists Network: 125 Artists and Their Historic Studios. I’ve gathered a few of my favorites here. But if you like this sort of thing, there’s a treasure trove more to explore at the link above, which also includes a bit about each artist’s life and work.

Joan-Miro
Joan Miró’s studio, Mallorca, 1977. Photograph by Francesc Català-Roca © Photographic Archive of the Historical Archive of the College of Architects of Catalonia.
Alice-Austen 125 Studios HAHS
As a photographer of contemporary urban life, the entire world was Alice Austen’s studio. Courtesy of Alice Austen House Museum, Staten Island, NY.

The photo above is my favorite in the collection. A woman in command of her world, poised gracefully on a barbed wire fence post to capture her vision! How does she ever stay balanced long enough to do so?

Looking at her poised on that fence, it’s not surprising to learn that “she challenged oppressive Victorian conventions by embracing individuality and independence” as noted in the article Over 100 Years Later, Photographer Alice Austen Is Finally Being Recognized as an LGBTQ Icon. The photo below that she created of herself and a friend “wearing masks, corsets, and calf-length skirts, their arms intertwined” and smoking, “an act women could be arrested for,” perhaps says it all about this amazing, talented artist.

Alice Austen, Trude & I, 1891. Courtesy of Staten Island Historical Society.
Beatrice-Wood
Portrait of Beatrice Wood in her Ojai studio, 1983. Collection Jim McHugh Artist Archives.

I love seeing these incredible artists, Wood and Sorolla, surrounded by their art. Each so different, and each so prolifically talented.

Wood, I learned, had inspired the character of Rose in the film Titanic after Cameron read her autobiography I Shock Myself. She famously shared in a love triangle with Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché, two famous men in that time, an artist and author. She lived to be 108. So did Rose, in the film, I believe.

Sorolla has been one of my favorite artists for a long time now. Quite the opposite of Wood, he was a staid, devoted family man. This black and white photo does not do justice to his work. For a better look at the way he infuses his paintings with light you might want to take a look at another one of my posts: The Luscious Light of Sorolla’s Paintings.

Joaquin-Sorolla
Joaquín Sorolla painting in his studio, 1911. Photograph by Ricardo Del Rivero. Courtesy of Museo Sorolla.
Emile-Antoine-Bourdelle
Emile-Antoine Bourdelle in his studio with Héraklès. Courtesy of Musee Bourdelle.

I found the strength of Bourdelle’s Hercules and the fierceness in the artist’s eyes mesmerizing. Both seem to challenge the viewer with their ferocity. He was a protege of Rodin and a teacher of Matisse, a “fiercely independent'” artist who resisted formal training and eventually started his own free-school of sculpture.

Bourgeois below, in contrast, has the calm, studious appearance of the serious craftsman at work, all her tools in perfect order. You wouldn’t guess that her most famous sculptures are gigantic spiders, who she sees as both predator and protector, symbolizing the mother figure. 

Louise-Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois in her home studio in 1974. Photograph by Mark Setteducati, © The Easton Foundation.
Salvador-Dali
Salvador Dalí painting Galatea of the Spheres in his studio in Portlligat, 1952. Photograph by Carlos Pérez de Rozas. Courtesy of Dalí Foundation.

I love Dali’s face above and Gorey’s cat below. They make me laugh.

I fell in love with Dali’s work when I visited his museum in Bruges, Belgium. I was especially captivated by his illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. He himself seems something of a Cheshire Cat figure. You can see more of his work at my post Down the Rabbit Hole with Dali.

Gorey, below is also an illustrator of children’s books, and something of a Cheshire Cat himself. He created books with no words, books the size of match boxes, and surreal books he classified as “literary nonsense,” adding: “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.”

Edward-Gorey
Edward Gorey, 1976. Photograph by Jill Krementz. Courtesy of New York Social Diary. Renowned illustrator of children’s books. Love the cat!
Henriette Wyeth 125 Artist Studios
Henriette Wyeth, daughter of N. C. Wyeth and sister of Andrew Wyeth, in her Chadds Ford studio, ca. 1935. Photographer unknown, N. C. Wyeth Collections, Walter and Leonore Annenberg Research Center, Brandywine River Museum of Art.

Something about the faces of these two women artists next to their paintings of other women speaks to me. They almost seem like self-portraits.

Stern, below, traveled the world and was a major South African artist who achieved national and international recognition in her lifetime. Wyeth stayed close to home, a wife and mother. While a noted artist in her time, her fame was overshadowed by her father’s and brother’s, as happened to so many women artists back then. And too often today too, sadly.

Irma Stern
Irma Stern painting Malay Girl. Courtesy of Irma Stern Museum.
Clementine-Hunter
Clementine Hunter was a self-taught black folk artist from the Cane River region of Louisiana. Courtesy of Melrose Plantation Historic Home, Natchitoches, LA. Pat

The patience and persistence, the quiet dignity, captured in this photo of Hunter above, complemented with the sheer joy and exuberance of Pollock in his photo says all that needs to be said about the making of art!

You can make art no matter your social class, your gender, your personal challenges, and often these are part of your art and what makes it unique. But what is truly needed is the pure love and joy of art-making, which inspires the patience and the persistence, whether fame and fortune follows or not.

Jackson-Pollock
Jackson Pollock at work on Alchemy, 1969. Photograph by Herbert Matter. Courtesy of Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, NY. The joy on his face!

Poem: A Prodigal Turns Prophet

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DSCN4141

Three summers I spent by the river in the heat of a homeless camp. (Having left my father’s home, which was my home, though I knew it not.)

Three summers of night terrors howling through my tent as the stars threw down their furious spears. (Having left my mother’s home, which was my home, though I knew it not.)

Three summers trolling the streets in blistered feet while eyes turned sideways at my glance. (Having lost all I loved, which loved me still, though I knew it not.)

As I walked the flesh melted from my bones, my teeth melted from my mouth. My thoughts dried up and blew away. Past and present dried up and blew away.

Nothing was left behind to claim a name, to know what I was or wasn’t.

Empty, careless and carefree, I danced along the street like a wind-tossed leaf, like a moon-mad fool, marveling at how all I saw danced with me.

Now my tent is my temple and the river flowing past me washes through me—mother and father and all I love and always was and ever will be.

Now as I walk the streets flowers grow at my feet, and every eye turned toward me is mine.

By Deborah J. Brasket

The story of the Prodigal is a favorite found in almost every faith because it tells deep truths we all recognize. We are all prodigals in some ways, whether living homeless on the streets or in the home of our dreams, if we have not, as this Prodigal has, returned home to our true self. If we have not gone through the weaning process that strips us of all we never were and gives back to us all we are, the magnificence of our oneness with the All-in-all.

This poem, too, is influenced by the tales of the old Zen Masters, relating their journey to enlightenment, a process known as “losing and losing.” Often they began their journey in abject poverty. Chuang Tzu describes how he was able to free himself from the limitations of the finite mind and gain an insight into his innermost being: First freeing himself from the concerns of the world, then from all externalities, from gain and loss, right and wrong, past and present. Finally he was freed from his own existence, from birth and death, I and Other. He sees the One and becomes part of the One. At that point, he was able again to enter again into the world of men, but this time with “bliss-bestowing hands.”

The photo above is one I took at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I wrote a blog post about that visit called “Fascinating Faces, Tao and the Arts.” I wrote: “Some works of art speak to you on a level that is hard to define. You gaze and are drawn inward. Something in you identifies with what you see there. It’s not outside, it’s in here. It was there before you saw it, and the seeing is just a reminder of its presence.” I felt an especial affinity with this face.

Writing Again, Loving It

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By Charles Dana Gibson, 1911

I’m working again on that novel I wrote about in The White Hot Flow of Writing some time ago. I feels good to be back in the saddle after that long interval. I’m making good progress so far, putting in 30 hours of writing a week, or more if you count the reading research, of which there is plenty. I enjoy the research almost as much as the writing.

I started in again with the intention to write one full draft and one full revision in one year. It’s more of an experiment, actually. To see if it’s possible, especially with a historical novel set in Central America in the 70’s during all the political unrest and guerrilla warfare going on at that time.

In the White Hot Flow post, I wrote in more detail about the characters and plot, and especially more about my writing process, which I’ve copied in part below. It remains pretty much the same process as now, even after such a long break.

First there’s a germ of an idea, and then the need to anchor it in reality. The need to immerse myself in some aspect of the history, the setting, the geography, the larger ideas that underpin what I’m aiming to write: Research.

( I’m still researching now, and that “germ” keeps growing the more I learn.)

Next in the process comes the need to discover the names and voices of my main characters. I cannot write a word without that.  This  almost happens simultaneously. The voices must have names to embody them, the names must have voices to bring the alive. The names evoke the voices, the voices evoke the names: Lena and Raoul.

(This remains the same, although the list of names grow as I add characters. within out their name, how can I embody them?)

Once I have these, there’s no stopping them. They take over my life. They start telling me their stories and I run and grab a pen. I keep on writing, pages after pages in my notebook and on my computer. I look up and morning has turned to nightfall. It doesn’t matter. They follow me to bed. I sleep with them. I dream them. I wake up writing love poems in their voices.

(Yes, this is the sweet spot, the white, hot flow of writing, and I still have mornings where I sit in bed till noon with my yellow writing pad and blue pen, taking dictation from my characters.)

Then I need at least a vague sense of how the novel will open, how it will close. It may change along the way, but I need this parenthesis to contain my writing and to show me where it’s moving. They tell me.

When I have the beginning and the ending, keys scenes in between emerge. I write them down quickly before they disappear. They may change over time, but at least I have key points upon which to hang my novel.

By then my characters have become real to me. They have flesh and bone, names, voices, histories. They have deep, deep urges, conflicting desires, inner and outer struggles, a sense of transformation.

It’s like watching a miracle unfold. How they seem to come from nowhere, out of thin air, then suddenly they are breathing bodies, passionate, possessed.

(It still feels that way.)

Eventually I had so many handwritten scenes and research notes and ideas I had to organize them into folders of where they will fall in the novel, which I’ve divided now into 5 parts.

Now I’m in the messy process of inputting the raw material into word documents and shaping them into actual chapters. This is the hard work of writing—not flow, but fits and starts and stops: slowing down when I hit a snag, reversing course as I try out a new plotting strategy, or staring blankly at the screen as I try to reimagine how a scene could unfold. Sometimes I stop to do more research, or put on a load of laundry to give myself a break, or take a walk to clear my head. I take a notebook with me where ever I go in case the dam breaks and the words start flowing again.

But it’s all good, even when the little trolls in my head start complaining: Isn’t this a bit too ambitious? Do you think you might have bitten off more than you can chew? Do you really want to be a slave to this novel for the next year, or two, or whatever it takes? No, no, and yes, I reply.

I chose this. For now. And I’m loving it, even the hard work and crazy-making of the fits and stops and starts of the writing process, as well as the white, hot flow.

Lena and Raoul deserve to have their story told, and who is there to do it but me? I’m writing the kind of novel I would love to read, and even if no one reads it but me, well, that may just be enough.

Three by Langston Hughs on Juneteenth

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Thomas Hart Benton, 1945

The Negro Speaks of Rivers


I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

From Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

. . . . .

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Under the Midnight Blues Painting by Colin Bootman

In Defense of Joy

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We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Jack Gilbert, from “A Brief for the Defense

The title of this poem is so interesting. How sometimes we feel we must defend our pleasures, our moments of delight, in the face of so much suffering in the world.

Finding the balance between wanting to save the world (as if I could) and wanting to lay all that aside and just savor it while I can, has been a lasting theme in my life.

More and more I’m tending toward the latter.

My favorite treatise on the subject is the tale of the Zen monk being chased over a cliff by a tiger. He grabs hold of a vine to keep from falling, while a hungry alligator snaps at his heels in the river below. Just then, he spies a juicy red strawberry hanging nearby. He reaches out with one hand to pop it into his mouth.

“Oh, so delicious!” he sighs.

As do I.

“Back to the Garden” with Stardust and Irises

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This painting is considered by many as Van Gogh’s finest floral, and one of the only two paintings he chose to exhibit publicly. It was painted after breakfast on the first day at the asylum where he went to heal after mutilating his ear.

The garden has always been a place for healing, and the fact that Van Gogh found some healing comfort in painting these lovely things I find incredibly moving. A poster of these irises has been living with me for years, hanging over a hutch in my dining room in my last home. And now it adds its blue and turquoise dazzle to my pool room bath, decorated in blues and turquoise, shells and candles, and other sea inspired paintings.

The sea too, like the garden, has always been a healing place. Spending time there gives us a sense of coming home, connecting us not only to nature at its finest, but also to some deeper sense of calm and beauty that we recognize instrinsically as part of our primal nature. When we are hurting or out of sorts, seeking that connection brings us home to ourselves and we find healing. Music and art share those healing qualities.

That call for us to come “back to the garden” for healing and renewal is found in an old song from the sixties, one of my favorites, that I listened to recently when doing research on a new novel. The song isn’t actually called “back to the garden” as I’d thought. But a google search of those words brought me to it nonetheless. It was written by Joni Mitchell in 1968. The trio Crosby, Stills, and Nash were the first to sing it, and made it famous, but I like the way Joni sings it better. She named it “Woodstock,” but it’s less about that famous festival than the idea behind it. It captures the spirit of the times, that hope of healing the nation, of turning the turmoil of the times—“the bombers riding shotgun in the sky”—-“into butterflies.”

You may remember the song’s intoxicating refrain:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

The garden evokes the Garden of Eden, a time before The Fall. And the reference to stardust, of course, reminds us of our even more primal origin, the fact that the stuff of which we are made is the stuff of stars.

Whether we go to the garden for healing, or the sea, what we are really doing is connecting with some primal part of ourselves that includes the whole universe of being. If only we truly knew and understood what that means, turning bombers into butterflies, or a mutilated ear into irises, would be inevitable.