Fox & Friend, A Painting for My Grandson

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Fox and Friend by Deborah J. Brasket (acrylic)

One of the pleasures of painting is creating something special for loved ones. Both of my grandchildren have a special affection for foxes. This one is for my grandson, which also includes a mink because he mentioned how cute they are, having seen a report on how hundreds had escaped (or been recued) from a mink farm.

The last one I painted for my granddaughter included a fox as well. I was pleased with both, and also with a collage I made for my daughter and son-in-law, commemorating their wedding day.

These paintings for loved ones don’t always come out as well as I hoped. A landscape of a California vineyard for my brother and sister-in-law did not please me. I mailed it anyway, since it was a Christmas present and “okay,” although not as good as I’d wanted. To make up for that, along with it I mailed them another California rural scene I liked better.

I just hope my grandson doesn’t outgrow this painting too soon. He’s a sweeet kid and loves animals but he just turned 15. I’m hoping he sees the humor in the two critters eyeballing each other. A bit of tension there. The mink is safe enough though. Maybe I could have toned down the flowers? But who’s to say young male teens can’t appreciate flowers as much as the rest of us?

My granddaughter will outgrow the paintings I made for her soon enough too. I like thinking these will be passed along to my great-grandchildren someday. Or some grandma in a thrift shop or at a garage sale will pick them up for a couple of bucks to pass along to their own grands.

It’s a sweet thought.

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Painting Again—A Wild and Wooly Seascape

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Seascape in acrylic by Deborah J. Brasket

It’s been awhile. I traded in my pen for my paintbrush these last few weeks. The new novel I’ve been writing is off with beta readers who will give me the feedback I need to continue revising. In the meantime, I’ve been wanting a seascape to go in a special place in our home to complement the model of the USS Constitution that my husband spent three years creating.

I saw an online paint-along of a seascape from a photo reference I liked, and decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, the paint-along format didn’t work for me. I’ve never been someone to draw within the lines. I wasn’t happy with the outcome and turned off the video and, using the photo reference, worked on my own, adding and deleting elements as I went along. It went through several transformations before my husband and I decided it would suffice.

It’s signed and framed and ready to hang. At first I thought this frame was too busy for the painting, but when I tried it with other, plainer, frames, it didn’t look as nice. Besides, I love the frame. The antique look blends well with Old Ironsides.

Seascape in acrylic by Deborah J. Brasket

I haven’t worked a lot in acrylic. Although I’m starting to get the hang of it. Most of what I’ve been doing has been in water color and pastels, or a combination of the two. I just finished another acrylic that I’m pleased with—a birthday present for my grandson. I’ll share that here soon too.

In the meantime, I’m wishing you all a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with friends and loved ones.

“Catching Every Falling Cup” – A Primal Urge

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Primal Swimming by Anthony Grootelaar

This phrase from my poem Brimless Being is becoming a mantra I turn to often these days.

It’s about the need to catch every falling cup “with soft hands” and fill it to the brim “with brimless being.”

This happens sometimes when writing poetry. A phrase will swim up from some primal depth, like a gift or some pressing urge—a fuzzy felt-sense of something that wants to be known, and, in the writing, becomes clearer, although not fully plumbed. Thus it returns, as if it has more to teach.

It means different things to me at different times. Sometimes it connotes a deep kindness that reaches out to save things that seem to be lost, fallen, ready to shatter—to hold them gently in our hands, our minds, and cherish everything good about them so much they become full to overflowing.

Other times it seems to suggest catching every moment before it disappears and just holding it gently in our awareness, feeling its fullness to such a degree that the moment stills and becomes its own kind of forever unending.

Doing this when it’s still and quiet is like stepping into a pool and swimming luxuriously through it. Steeping ourselves in every sound, texture, color, scent of that still moment—breathing it all in.

Trying to do so in those harried moments when you’re full of feeling—perhaps stressed, anxious, in a hurry and rushing around—is harder. But even then, the attempt to do so creates its own magic. Even as everything around you is in a rush, the moment slows and softens as the mind merges with its surroundings, savoring its suchness. That moment melts into the next in a never-ending stream. Nothing is lost. All remains full.

Me, you, our lives, each passing moment—We are the cup that must be caught with soft hands and filled to the brim with brimless being. That’s the urgent need.

Image by Anthony Grootelaar

The Luminous Mindscapes of Shara Hughes

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“Attraction Contraption” (1921) by Shara Hughes

It’s not surprising I’m drawn to these so-called landscapes by Shara Hughes. They remind me of Matthew Wong’s mysterious mindscapes and Odilon Redon’s poetic paintings, whose work I’ve shared on these pages as well. The real and surreal, the interior and exterior, the symbolic and psychological wrap around and feed each other. You enter places that feel real and dreamlike at the same time. Beautiful and disturbing, fluid and chaotic, lush and luminous.

Her current show “Time Lapsed” at the Kunstmuseum Luzern in Switzerland includes this statement about her work: “These fantasy landscapes satisfy our need for beauty on the one hand, but also arouse a slight uneasiness on the other. The nature depicted seems irrepressible and at times even threatening in its exuberant fullness. Shara Hughes’s landscapes are mood pictures that convey feelings, emotions, or memories.”

Perhaps that’s why they feel familiar, like some otherworldly place I’ve been before—evoking dreams, memories, emotions that wait just below the surface and lure me inward.

“Glow in the Dark” by Shara Hughes
“Just Another Pretty Face” by Shara Hughes
“The Delicate Gloom” by Shara Hughes
“My Violet Lullabye” by Shara Hughes
“My Natural Nycintimasty” by Shara Hughes

Listen to Your Life, the Holy, Hidden Heart of It

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Alix Ayme, 1894-1989

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. —Frederick Buechner

I never heard of Frederick Buechner before reading The Man Who Found His Inner Depths by David Brooks in the New York Times. He was a novelist with a “religious slant” who died last week at the age of 96. This quote struck me as “true” in an existential way—this need for each of us to listen to our life, our own particular life, as well as to Life in the more expansive sense. To touch “the holy at the heart of it”. And to realize that “all moments are key moments.”

I’ve been doing a lot of that “listening” lately, and looking back at key moments of my life, as well as those that fall in between. Perhaps because I’m of a certain age when there are more years on Earth behind me than before, or because at this stage I have the time and leisure to contemplate such things. And with the contemplation of life, alas, comes also that of its twin, death.

Buechner had some interesting things to say on this subject as well: “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

Interestingly, that aligns with something a scientist said, when explaining how abundance is a fundamental truth of Reality.

[A] full human lifetime contains far more moments of consciousness than universal history contains human lifespans. We are gifted with an abundance of inner time.—from Fundamentals, Ten Keys to Reality by Frank Wilczek, Nobel Prize winner in physics

This “abundance of inner time,” of time without end, seems fundamental to my own experience of “time” these days. Even as my own timespan here on Earth would appear to be narrowing, it feels like a widening, an opening up into something larger. Timeless, you might say.

Which brings me to something else Buechner said. When imagining a conversation with his late aunt, he asks: “You’ve already set sail. What can you tell me about it?” To which she replies that it’s misleading to think of people as having passed away. “It is the world that passes away.”

Is it we or the world that passes away? Perhaps its only this limited way of perceiving the world that passes away. Perhaps we simply slip from one perceptual experience—one sliver of reality—-to another that is just as real, just as holy. Another hidden heart to explore. This idea too may have a hidden scientific corollary in what the newer sciences are telling us about the nature of reality and its fundamental truths.

“We like to think that we humans, with our five marvelous senses, are in full receipt of what this world has to offer in all its glory. But in reality, like all creatures, we tap into but a tiny slice of its vast fullness.”

So I wrote in Slivers of Reality in a More-Than-Human World, after reading Ed Yong’s An Immense World about how animal senses reveal hidden realms around us. Breakthroughs in science and technology are showing us more about the vast reality that lies outside our physical ability to perceive it. And who’s to say there aren’t hidden realms outside our physical bodies to experience beyond this world? As we do in our dreams when we see and touch and feel things that have no physical form. Or as people who have had near-death experiences claim. Experiences that scientists are beginning to study seriously. And those who have are questioning whether the brain is truly the source of consciousness or merely a temporary conduit through which it passes, operating in reaches far beyond that.

Who were you before your parents were born?

This is an old Zen koan, whose study is meant to break students out of their limited way of thinking about themselves or experiencing reality. It’s another way of saying the fundamental key to reality lies within.

Listen to your life. Experience for yourself the “fathomless mystery” of Life’s “hidden heart.”

Slivers of Reality in a More-Than-Human World

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The Secret Garden, by Deborah J. Brasket

We like to think that we humans, with our five marvelous senses, are in full receipt of what this world has to offer in all its glory. But in reality, like all creatures, we tap into but a tiny slice of its vast fullness. We each are trapped within our own perceptual bubble, or Umwelt, that part of our surroundings we can sense and experience.

When we watch a bird coursing through the air, we might try to imagine what it feels like to fly, to have a birds-eye view of the world as it does. And yet what a bird in flight actually experiences with its wraparound vision, seeing in all directions at once, surfing air currents that are as palpable to it as they are invisible to us, tapping into the Earth’s electromagnetic fields to guide its migrations, seeing colors we can’t see and hearing sounds we can’t detect—it’s full bubble of experience—is beyond anything we can experience, even if we could fly.

This is true for all the other creatures that inhabit our backyards and the world around us, as revealed in Ed Yong’s An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. “Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness,” he writes.

The thing is, while a mocking bird will never know what a bee sees, nor a cat know how a bat navigates, or a mosquito see a spider’s web even while caught within it, for all our sensory limitation, we humans are the only creature who can pierce to some degree beyond our own sense bubble. Through our curiosity and imagination and intellect we can create the tools and technologies to penetrate, at least to some degree, this more-than-human world. We can begin piecing together all these slivers of reality into a much fuller sense of the world in which we are embedded. The technologies we create are just crude tools for piercing that darkness. But they open up windows into the far reaches of reality where our minds and imagination can soar.

I wish I could experience the wraparound vision of a bird, or the 3-D hearing of a dolphin, or smell the smorgasbord of earthly delights wafting up the hill as my dog does. I can only imagine what it might be like to do so. And because of this—my imagination—I expand my sense of the world’s vast potential, and deepen my appreciation for all its marvels. It’s an amazing gift, to be able to tap into other creatures Umwelten. This is our greatest sensory skill, Yong tells us. It carries with it an enormous responsibility for cherishing and protecting all those life-forms that expand our understanding of reality. We must ensure they do not perish from this Earth through our own neglect or indifference or ignorance.

That is one of Yong’s main messages in his final chapter about noise and light pollution: “Save the Quiet, Preserve the Dark.” He reminds us that as “the species most responsible for destroying sensory realms, it falls on us to marshal all of our empathy and ingenuity to protect other creatures, and their unique ways of experiencing our shared world.”

Other-Worldly Encounters with a Feral Cat

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She sauntered into our yard about a month ago, this young orange tabby with a white bib. Her gaze passed over me as if she did not see me at all, as if I was part of the patio furniture where I was sitting. When our eyes finally did meet, I still saw no recognition that I was a human or animate or alive or anything at all. It was eerie—being so unseen, unrecognized—her complete disinterest in me. Even the deer and wild turkeys I meet see me, and seem wary and apprehensive when they do. They recognize me as something apart from my surroundings, something to pay attention to, keep an eye on. But not this kitty.

Until she mistook me for food. I’d dropped a couple pieces of lunchmeat on the patio for her, which she gobbled up. But when I held my hand out to her after that, which must have still smelled of meat, she slowly moved toward the smell. She sniffed at my fingers, and then took a bite. Not hard enough to break skin, but hard enough for me to draw back and for her to skitter away.

Later as I was sitting there reading, and apparently wriggling my bare toes, she approached again, stealthily. She saw my toes as prey—not connected to something larger. Then she pounced and bit, harder this time. I cried out. She dashed off again.

Since then I’ve been putting food out when I see her in the yard. She now seems to “see” me as a food source, rather than as food. She won’t eat until I’ve put the food down and move away. If I stay in the yard, she keeps an anxious eye on me, and if I try to approach she darts off. Sometimes she’ll even stand by the door where I go to bring out food, as if waiting for her food source to fulfill its mission.

But she’s still a wild thing, with wild behavior.

We’ve watched her run full tilt at trees and dash up and down the trunks as fast as she can. One tree after another as she makes her way up the hill. For no apparent purpose but for the pure pleasure it brings, it seems. Once when my husband was pruning our plum tree, she dashed up its trunk and then wriggled like a worm through its tight branches.

At wild cat at play in a wild world.

I’ve watched her stalking birds at our birdbath. At first she tried to get them while standing beneath the bath and reaching up. Now she’s learned to take a running leap at them, flying up over the birdbath stretched out like superman, her back legs trailing in the water while her front feet try to grab the bird. She’s yet to catch any while I’ve watched. But we’ve seen her more than once climb up the hill toward the tall grass with a large furry creature in her mouth.

Now that she recognizes us a food source, she hangs out here more often, sometimes grabbing a drink from the pool or the water-can we keep full for her. Sometimes she drinks from the birdbath. She’s found a favorite padded patio chair with a pillow where she likes to snooze. Although a narrow wall will do just as well.

Sometimes we don’t see her for days.

When we do, I don’t try to tame her. I want her to stay wild and independent. But I also want her to see our home as a safe haven from the predators who see her as food—the coyotes and foxes and mountain lions that live beyond our fence. She’s small enough to squeeze through. They aren’t. And I want to augment her diet during the lean times to keep her healthy but not dependent upon us for her meals.

She reminds me—even more than the deer and coyotes and other wild things that live nearby do—that there’s an entirely different way of being in the world and perceiving it that’s unlike anything we humans could ever experience. Insects, birds, bats, orcas and others species each inhabit separate and distinct slivers of reality known only to them. There’s a word for that—umwelt.

We tend to anthropomorphize the animal kingdom, especially our pets, remaking them in our own minds in our own images. But what they are and the world as they experience it is so extraordinary and other-worldly as to make our own pale in comparison. More on this and the umwelt next time.

Capturing the Spirit of Our Kindred Cousins

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Bronze sculpture, ‘Macaque and Infant’ Detail, by Nichola Theakston

Sculptor Nichola Theakston works in bronze and ceramics to capture the spirit of creatures found in her native Wales and in the wilds beyond its borders. “The notion that an individual creature may experience some ‘otherness’ or spiritual dimension beyond our understanding of its instinctive animal behaviours, is the premise behind much of my work,” she tells us on her website.

I discovered her work on a blog I follow at Colossal, and fell in love with the tender and tranquil faces of her primates, the curious and inscrutable felines, the proud and majestic wildlife.

We learn something about ourselves as humans when we see these qualities in the more-than-human world around us. Is it our own spirit we recognize in them? Or a Spirit that enlightens human and non-human alike, that compels us to see ourselves in the Other.

What do you see when you look at faces of our kindred cousins?

‘Sacred Langur’ in Bronze
Bronze sculpture of “Bastet”
Bastet Study in Bronze
“Still Rhino” in Bronze
‘Standing Silverback’ in Bronze
“Fleet Hare” Study, in Terracotta

Beauty the Brave, the Exemplary, Bursting Open

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White Peony, Jan La Roche Photography

What is it about the fragile, fleeting, and flagrant beauty of flowers that can so break a heart?

I wrote about this once in a photo-essay called Riffing on Roses. And then just this week I found this new-to-me poem by Mary Oliver, Peonies, which broke my heart again.

The poem speaks to the flagrant beauty of flowers that gives itself away, all that it is, so freely and readily to all that comes its way: the ants, the breeze, the sun’s soft buttery fingers, the poet’s breaking heart.

“Beauty the brave, the exemplary,” indeed.

I wish we all could live so bravely, so carelessly, giving all that we are to all there is. I wish we all, like those ants, craving such sweetness and finding it, would bore deep within that sap. We must cherish and adore all we are, all we have, all that is, while it’s still here to have.

Peonies

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
   to break my heart
      as the sun rises,
         as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
   pools of lace,
      white and pink —
         and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
   into the curls,
      craving the sweet sap,
         taking it away

to their dark, underground cities —
   and all day
      under the shifty wind,
         as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
   and tip their fragrance to the air,
      and rise,
         their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
   gladly and lightly,
      and there it is again —
         beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
   Do you love this world?
      Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
         Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
   and softly,
      and exclaiming of their dearness,
         fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
   their eagerness
      to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
         nothing, forever?

 Mary Oliver,  New And Selected Poems. (Beacon Press; Reprint edition November 19, 2013)

Thank you to The Vale of Soul-Making where I found this poem.

A Deep-Dive Through Time and Space

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Deep space, 13 billion years ago. Photo From Webb Space Telescope

By now you’ve probably seen the stunning new images from the Webb Space Telescope, which takes us 13 billion years back in time. That’s 8 billion years before the Earth was born. We stand here now looking back at a time before there was ground to stand on, or a human consciousness to see or grasp anything at all. We are looking at a speck of sky no bigger than a grain of sand, they say, yet filled with millions of galaxies and trillions of stars, and who knows how many planets or moons or intelligent life-forms looking back. Only they wouldn’t see us. For we don’t exist yet.

It’s mind-boggling. And certainly puts the turmoil we’re experiencing here on Earth into a new perspective. No less urgent or relevant for our fire-fly timespans. But it points us away from the personal and relative “here and now” into one that is infinitely larger than our selves and the tiny blue marble we call home. Our “here and now” encapsulates not only the present moment but the “here and now” 13 billion years ago. We are the link that spans that distance through time and space. Our consciousness. Mine. Yours. Now. Enfolding all that. Surely it means something significant.

When we turn the eye inward rather than out, into the micro-universe of atoms and particles swirling inside us and everything that exits, we grasp a new paradox. Quantum physics has shown us that those inner worlds at the most infinitesimal level exist only as clouds of potentiality rather than as concrete substance. These clouds of potentiality only become “real”—that is, fixed in time and space—when observed. Unseen they exist only within a hazy realm of the possible.

In comparison to the infinite universe swirling around us and inside us, we humans may seem pathetically insignificant. Not worth a mention in the footnotes of atomic and astronomic legers of Science. And yet we seem to play an essential and outsized role.

Without the human mind to grasp the universe there would be no universe to be grasped. Our bodies may have been evolved from star-dust. But it’s our minds, our own conscious grasping of such, that moves “star-dust,” and all else, out of the realm of the potential and into the realm of the real.

Such is the circular and utterly paradoxical wonder of a world we live in.

The cloudy realm from which stars are born. Photo from the Webb Space Telescope.