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.
Time-travelling—that’s what it feels like when listening to Erik Satie’s Gnossienne. When I close my eyes and let the music move me, I’m transported to faraway places and distant times. I can see the mist rising from the river, the arched bridges, the damp gray stones of gothic towers tilting toward sullen skies. I can feel the cool breath of the river, smell the sweet-dank dampness of rain-drenched streets, hear the clatter of distant hoofs on cobblestones. It’s almost as if I’ve entered some strangely familiar dreamscape, or the distant landscape of an idealized past.
These dark, insistent, melancholy notes play us and ply us across space and time in rapturous eloquence. It reminds us that we share so much of our common past, our common humanity, to the art and music and literature that inspires us.
I’m reminded of the short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges, and this particular quote:
“This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries –embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and yet in others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words but am in error, a phantom Time is forever dividing itself toward innumerable futures. — Jorge Luis Borges, from “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Collected Fictions. (Penguin Books September 1, 1999) Originally published 1941.
And also, this from Rilke:
Even the past is still a being in the fullness of its occurrence, if only it is understood not according to its content but by means of its intensity, and we–members of a world that generates movement upon movement, force upon force, and seems to cascade inexorably into less and less visible things–we are forced to rely upon the past’s superior visibility if we want to gain an image of the now muted magnificence that still surrounds us today. — Rainer Maria Rilke, from “On Life and Living,” The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, ed. and trans. Ulrich Baer (Modern Library, 2005)
And finally, from a Nobel Prize winning physicist, this:
“This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am below and above, I am this whole world’.
Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering.
And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.”
― Erwin Schrödinger,
In several of his films, Ingmar Bergman plays with the notion of multiple layers of reality. This can be seen as early as The Seventh Seal, and continues with Autumn Sonata, and Wild Strawberries, culminating in what was intended to be his final film, Franny and Alexander.
In some ways, Franny and Alexander is a tour de force. It speaks to us on so many levels. It can be seen, in part, as a family saga, a farce, a fairy tale, a theatrical play, a Gothic Romance, and a supernatural horror story. It is, in fact, all these things at once.
Yet each differing perspective can be seen as a different layer of reality, a different way of looking at the same material. Each appears as a separate backdrop against which the film can be seen, which, when lifted, offers a new view, a new level of perception, a new “reality.”
We can see this in the opening sequence. The first shot reveals a close-up of what appears to be an ornate building. As the camera moves down the building, we see a row of footlights and what now appears to be a stage. A series of painted backdrops are lifted to reveal new scenes. But it is only when the last backdrop is raised that we see a child’s face, huge, behind the scenes. This is when we realize that the stage is but a child’s theater and the row of footlights are candles. The camera seems to be inviting the viewer to see through these multiple layers of “reality,” perceptions of the real, to the final revelation, the child, or rather, the child’s imagination, as revealed through his dreamy gaze.
The film continues to pull back layer after layer of curtains to reveal the tenuous and shifting nature of reality.
In the final scene, the grandmother is reading from Strindburg’s “A Dream Play.” She reads: “Anything will occur. Anything is possible and likely. Time and space do not exist. On the tenuous ground of reality, imagination reaches out and weaves a new pattern.”
Reality is seen to be not singular, but as consisting of ever-deepening layers of reality, one on top of the other, in a richly dense and complex multiplicity.
I was reminded of this film when listening to one of Alan Watt’s talks that I wrote about in another post. And I wonder if the reason Bergman’s films resonate with so many people is that we sense a truth here. We see this perspective not only in film and art, about the mystery of things, these shifting perspectives and “layers of reality,” but we see it in science, how beneath these seemingly solid bodies lies unseen, shifting worlds that swirl and collide and contradict each other.
I question often what is real and not-real, and wonder if it’s more complex than that. Perhaps it’s not a case of what’s real or not, of one or the other, but shifting perceptions of what’s real, some dark, some light, that weave together a reality that is deeper and more complex than our superficial lives allow us to see.
POSTSCRIPT: In searching for photos for this post, I happened upon Roger Ebert’s review of the film, which also, surprisingly (or maybe not so), refers to the film as having “shifted into a different kind of reality.” I’ve added an excerpt of his review here:
“There are fairy-tale elements here, but “Fanny and Alexander” is above all the story of what Alexander understands is really happening. If magic is real, if ghosts can walk, so be it. Bergman has often allowed the supernatural into his films. In another sense, the events in “Fanny and Alexander” may be seen through the prism of the children’s memories, so that half-understood and half-forgotten events have been reconstructed into a new fable that explains their lives.
What’s certain is that Bergman somehow glides beyond the mere telling of his story into a kind of hypnotic series of events that have the clarity and fascination of dreams. Rarely have I felt so strongly during a movie that my mind had been shifted into a different kind of reality. The scenes at night in the Jacobi house are as intriguing and mysterious as any I have seen, quiet and dreamy, and then disturbing when the mad Ismael calmly and sweetly shows Alexander how everything will be resolved.”
What do you think? Have you seen any of Bergman’s films? Do you think there’s more to us, or reality, than what we experience in the everyday?
I first posted this, in slightly different form, in 2014.
I spent Sunday morning in bed with my coffee listening to Chopin’s complete nocturnes playing on my phone beside me. Think of that. Music created centuries ago played by a pianist years ago streaming in my room, my consciousness, here and now.
Each keystroke playing me as if I was the instrument it played. As if the music arising in the room with no piano in sight were fingers keying notes within the body of some vast collective consciousness.
Aside from the way the notes rippled through me, thrilling and caressing and demanding, was that crystalline silence between each song and each hovering note. The silence that held thought at bay as I listened. The silence that allowed feeling to be all, to allow me, whatever this me is, and this music, whatever this music is, to be one entirely inseparable thing.
There is no end to this.
It is a thing apart.
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.
Like many living in rural areas, my husband and I enjoy watching the show that nature puts on outside our windows every day. We love watching all the critters parading in the meadow behind our home, the gentle deer traipsing by in their high-heeled hooves, the mighty elk lifting their crowns of horn, the black boars scuttling along through the brush with their young, the wild rooster puffed up in all its finery to dazzle his adoring hens, the skinny coyote trotting by on the hunt, and the comical quail with their clutch of fluff-balls scurrying behind.
But every good show needs its villain to heighten the drama, and ours have been the nest of rattle-snakes that took up residence in our back yard. We’ve killed three in the past two weeks. The first two were young, no more than a foot and a half long. One was found lounging by our pool, another slithering into our garage. Then yesterday my husband caught their mother, or rather she got caught in the black netting we’d hung over the tomato plants to keep out the birds. She was at least 3 feet long and not happy in the least.
He threw her carcuss over the back fence into the meadow where that hungry coyote who makes its daily round might find it.
What surprised us though was how the quail reacted to its demise.
At first they cautiously approached it and then hurriedly backed away. Then slowly they approached again, at least a dozen, surrounding it completely.
It reminded us of that scene from The Wizard of Oz when the Munchkins timidly came out of hiding to gather around the withered feet of the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy’s house landed on her.
We imagined the quail viewing the snake with the same sort of surprised and delighted glee. The snake had been caught only a few feet away from the bushes where our families of quail nested. We had been watching three clutches these past few weeks, 15 babies in one, nine in another, but only one little fluffball following its parents in the third. Who knows how long this snake had been terrorizing their homes and gobbling up their children?
So there they all were, gathering around their nemesis, wondering what merciful god had answered their prayers and slain this mighty villain. With heads bobbing and dancing feet, we could almost hear them singing gleefully:
Ding dong, the witch is dead!
Which old witch? The wicked witch!
The wicked witch is dead.
Then the lights dim. The curtain falls. The audience claps. And our cast of critters quietly leave the stage to resume their daily routines.
Dale and I spent a magical day recently at San Simeon Bay along Highway 1, just below Hearst Castle on the California central coast. Quite unexpectedly, we found two sailboats rolling gently in the bay and three elephant seals lulling in the sun. Something we’ve never seen here before. Although elephant seals are found abundantly in this area, it’s unusual to find them on busy beaches. Signs warned us to beware, as these wild creatures can bite should they be disturbed.
One of the boats looked like La Gitana, the 46-foot sailboat that was our home for six years when we sailed around the world. Nostalgia for that magic time hit heavy. I almost felt like I could see our son at the bow with his fishing line thrown into the bay, our daughter riding the boom as she liked to do, and Dale and I sitting on the aft deck with two big green buckets and a wooden plunger, doing laundry.
Further up the beach was a quaint hut made of driftwood that some surfer had built. Like ones we often saw on remote beaches built by yachties when we were sailing.
Along the way as we hiked up the bluff and out to the point, we stopped to visit the largest eucalyptus trees we’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, with their rainbow bark, elephantine trunks and long octopus arms. Magical!
When we reached the point, we could look back at the bay and get a faraway glimpse of Hearst Castle high in the hills, another magical place. On the other side were beautiful views of the coastline.
The last time we came here we headed back after reaching the point, but this time we turned north to a path lined by pine and eucalyptus trees that parallels the coast.
The path grew narrower and darker and spookier as we walked, the trees thicker and more gnarled, blocking out the sun. Sharp branches reached out to grab and tree roots rose up to trip. On one side we could hear the hidden ocean waves whispering warnings to us, while all around the creepy creaks and groans of trees sent cold shivers down our spines. It seemed to go on forever. We could almost imagine ourselves as Hansel and Gretel lost in the stark, dark woods just before reaching the witches gingerbread house. Our path eventually opened up to a sun-filled view of the coastline stretching out as far as we could see, with the very faint outline of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse in the far misty distance.
On the hike back to the beach we came across a strange trail of dark, oily splats along the path, as if dropped from some huge creature flying by. Dragon shit, we surmised, looking up as if to see the dark shadow of reptile wings wheeling by. A fair and fitting end to our magical day at San Simeon.
Once Upon a Time, A Poem
In an eon, will Trumpism portend another Troy, a Trojan horse whose armies eviscerated a City of light?
Will we be the stuff of legends, our tropes and memes edging pages of ancient texts on crumbling shelves?
Will waves gently lap against the skirts of Liberty and docile doves nestle in her hair?
Will salmon swim upstream through city streets, and coral reefs grow in our gardens?
Will the long roots of forests thrum with our stories etched in rings around their trunks?
Will the mocking bird remember our voices? Or the songbirds our songs?
Will crickets by moonlight rub their feet together filling the night with memories of our violins?
Will tiny children perched in trees suckle strange fruit, while the bent backs of their elders forage below?
Will the skies with bows of beauty still bend round us? Will the stars cast spears of light upon our heads?
Will the Eagle with its soaring eye see us? Will we see it? And remember how
The long, slow, widening arcs of its wings drew round us, once up a time, so long ago.
Deborah J. Brasket, 2021
Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith from the fairy tale Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, 1862
“Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it?
And as you split the frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you that that is beautiful, and a part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home.
And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it.
And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.” ― Paul Harding, Tinkers. (Bellevue Literary Press January 1, 2009) Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2010
I spent a lovely morning recently exploring some of the deer paths behind our home, stopping to take photos along the way. It’s steeper than it looks here, but the deer know the best way to travel this terrain. And the lovely walking stick my husband made me with it’s sailor stitching and nubby knobs helped.
I love these oak trees, the curving branches with their rough bark and soft grassy moss, the dripping branches with their lacy ribbons. The way the sun peeks through . . .
The backlit branches spiking the sky. The tiny twigs curling like calligraphy against the deep blue.
The deer paths led me through sun-dappled glades . . .
. . . and pass the graveyards of dying and fallen giants, their bare bones scattered and broken along the way. Enriching the soil and nurturing new growth.
As I headed home again I passed the gopher ghetto that edges our property, a space my husband keeps clear of growth as a firebreak. These greedy, prolific creatures gobbled up the roots of several of our favorite rose bushes this year. But the bevy of quail that live here love this cleared space to scratch and feed. And they use the holes as bathtubs, wriggling their fat little bodies deep down into the tiny tubs and splashing the loosened dirt over their shoulders with their wings.
Home at last, I end this journey where I began, with this gorgeous red plum tree the marks one corner of our property.
And a postscript pleasure just for you: this beautiful buck who took a nap in our front yard not long ago. I feel so blessed to be surrounded by so much beauty and wildlife.