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.
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.
My understanding of what “mothering” is, or could be, was hugely influenced by this passage in the Tao Te Ching (CHXXV). The artwork that follows amplifies it.
There was something complete and nebulous
Which existed before the Heaven and Earth,
Unchanging, standing as One,
Able to be the Mother of the World.
This Mother of the World, of course, is the Divine Creator, the all-pervading, all embracing, unchanging, and unceasing. It’s the thing that evolves, supports, nurtures, protects, and provides space for its “children,” all individual being.
A tall order for a mere human.
Yet it inspires me to embrace my children in that spirit. To step back and project in some way this more expansive sense of mothering that allows them to feel loved and supported without all the worries and anxieties and criticism and fear that accompany a mere human sense of mothering.
This mothering is not as personal, intense, or myopic. It doesn’t hover, it doesn’t obsess, it doesn’t fret. It frees them “to be,” and is based on an immense sense of trust—in myself, in them, and in the universe at large. In God, or Tao, or some divine presence or higher power that embraces all of us, and gives each of us the capacity to mother each other.
I find this kind of mothering works best when I embrace all around me with the same mothering spirit. Not just my children, but all children, all people, all things—my home, my community, my work—even the individual objects that fill the space around me and the space outside my window. When I’m able to actually feel and identify with that potential, to “be” the “Mother of the World.”
The images in this post capture some of that universal and spiritual kind of Mothering, not only of love, but of unity and wholeness—two in one, and one in two. Two overlapping, enveloping, and yet distinct identities. “Not-two” is the way a Buddhist or Taoist might put it.
The painting by Sikorskaia at the top of the post shows this beautifully. The mother’s body wraps about her breast-feeding infant and fills the whole space with the solid, four-square wholeness of her presence. Her dark head is bent, attentive, surrounded by a halo of light-colored flesh. Her arms, open hand, and bend back form another circle, encircling the first. Her feet tenderly touch each other, and with the raised and lowered legs form a triangle of unity, the base upon which the mother sits.
She is grounded and centered, while the child is loose in her arms, able to move and to feed freely, but blending with the mother’s flesh, showing how closely knit they are even while separate beings. The dominant lines creating this painting are round, curved, circling each other. Mother and child are one in body and being. Two in one. One in two.
The following image by Barnet is similar. Mother and child completely fill the space and overflow it. They are facing each other, mirror reflections of each other. She sees herself in her child, the child sees itself in the mother. Her hands are wrapped around the child, but open, as is the child’s hand, reaching up toward the mother, toward its other surrounding self.
Will Barnet, Mother and Child,1993-2006
The painting by Irwin below also creates the powerful feeling of oneness and unity. Here we see the indistinct features and form of mother and child surrounded by a shadowy, indistinct background. The vertical figure is centered and reaches top to bottom, nearly bisecting the page. Clearly it shows two in one, one in two. The soft, indistinct edges of the form feather into the background, soft and permeable. The Mother and Child are one with each other and one with the surrounding environment. The whole painting is a study of unity and wholeness.
Madonna & Child by Holly Irwin
Two-ness is more evident in the next paintings.
In the first below by Harmon, mother and child again fill the space. Wholeness, oneness, is still the dominant theme. The mother’s face seems blissful, as if she is drinking up the scent of her child, savoring her closeness. The sea surrounds them, symbolizing the womb, the place of birth, of oneness. But the child’s dangling legs, the soles of her feet, denote her readiness and ability to separate from her mother. The restless waves at their feet foreshadow the coming parting, when the mother puts down her child. We can imagine them walking hand-in-hand down the beach.
In The Ocean Air by Johanna Harmon
We see this close unity and foreshadowing of separation in the following image by Sorolla as well.
Here, the sea as backdrop both unites the figures of mother/child and introduces the element of separation in the layered waves and wayward boat. The deep shadows and strong light also denotes two-ness–the pairing of opposites. The towel flung over and around mother and child unite them, but all that takes place behind them foreshadows separation. It seems a beautiful, tender, but fleeting moment in time. Unlike the first three images which seem iconic, timeless and eternal.
Sorolla – Masterful colorist “Just Out of the Sea” 1915
This last painting by Larson is probably my favorite among these six–for so many reasons. But first and foremost because it captures that golden glow of late afternoon on the beach, when the strong light casts shadows so deep and dark. The light shimmers around them and through them, uniting them, and revealing a transparency that we see in the figure’s back-lit clothing.
Mother and child are clearly two distinct individuals now. Still, the touching heads and hands form a circle of unity and closeness. Even the shadows at their feet flowing upward through the two figures form a second circle of unity. We still have two-in-one and one-in-two, even while the separate individuals are clearly defined.
There is something nostalgic about this painting. A tender sweetness underscored by the foreshadowing of separation as the two move apart from each other and this singular moment is lost in passing time. We cannot stop passing time, but we can capture it in these sweet moments, and preserve it in our art and our memories.
“Beach Treasures” by Jeffrey T. Larson (1999)
And I suppose that’s why I find all these paintings so powerful and profound. They capture universal and primal experiences we all have shared at one time or another in our journey from one to two and back again.
Mothering, I’ve learned, is a capacity that anyone can embrace: man, woman, child. You don’t have to be a mother, or have children of your own, to mother the world, to feel that oneness, or two-in-one. When we adopt that stance, all things become our children to nurture, cherish, support, love—to help bring to their full potential.
Here’s wishing you all a lovely day of “mothering.”
My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar, like what I remember of love when I was young —
love that was so often foolish in its objectives but never in its choices, its intensities Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —
My soul has been so fearful, so violent; forgive its brutality. As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance: it is not the earth I will miss, it is you I will miss.
A New Beginning for Our Ending
I too feel a new tenderness toward this body that holds me so tenderly in return, within its soft, wide confines. That moves me and moves with me wherever I go. That holds within all that I am, memories and emotions that ebb and flow, that mere touch, taste, scent, releases. And even now, after all this time together, when a foot or knee fails, when bones creak and muscles sigh, and the weight of you seems too much to bear, still, still, you gather me in your arms. You hold me near, breathe me in, lift me up, and lay me down. You try so hard to be what I need, to do what needs doing. Too often I have railed against you, dismissed you, disowned you. Let me see you now as friend, as lover, as mother. As dear to me as sky and earth and tree and sea. Let me cherish you as you have cherished me, and when the end comes, let us rest and rise together.
The abstract artwork of Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) predated that of Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian, and so some say that she rather than a “he” was the inventor of abstract art. She knew herself that she was painting well before her time and asked that her work not be exhibited until 20 years past her death. However, that stretch of restraint lasted much longer. Only recently is her work being given the kind of renown and interest she has long deserved.
Like so many artists, her artwork was inspired by a spiritual perspective, in her case a keen interest in Buddhism and Theosophy, and the Occult. What I love about her paintings are the rich colors and elegant organic shapes, the playful designs and sense of connectivity. Her art reminds me of Georgia O’Keefe’s works in some ways, the boldly feminine and evocative.
More about her life and work can be found in the links below.
One of my favorite poets, again, swept me off my feet, expressing the inexpressible with perfect eloquence.
And it was at that age … poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river. I don’t know how or when, no, they were not voices, they were not words, nor silence, but from a street I was summoned from the branches of night, abruptly from the others, among violent fires or returning alone, there I was, without a face, and it touched me.
I didn’t know what to say, my mouth had no way with names, my eyes were blind. And something started in my soul, fever or forgotten wings, and I made my own way, deciphering that fire, and I wrote the first, faint line, faint, without substance, pure nonsense, pure wisdom of someone who knows nothing; and suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open, planets, palpitating plantations, shadow perforated, riddled with arrows, fire, and flowers, the winding night, the universe.
And I, infinitesimal being, drunk with the great starry void, likeness, image of mystery, felt myself a pure part of the abyss. I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose on the wind. Pablo Neruda, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, trans. W.S. Merwin (Penguin Classics, 2004)
Illustration by Dorothy Lathrop 1891 – 1980 Stars, 1930, ink on illustration board. Illustration for Sarah Teasdale, Stars Tonight, New York: Macmillan Company, 1930.
For those seeking solace in solitude during these turbulent times and covid isolation, I offer these minimalist paintings for comfort and contemplation.
“My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.” -Agnes Martin
To truly see and appreciate Martin’s paintings, which are quite large, you might want to click on the images and zoom in to discover how intricately they are designed and woven, how subtle the entwining colors, like the woof and warp of carefully crafted fabric. To see how the order and calmness of the design pulls you in and stills the mind.
When I try to imagine the crafting of such paintings, the meticulous grids, the fine, faintly undulating hand-drawn lines, the cool, retiring colors, the tedious and calming task of such minute work on such a grand scale, I am awed with wonder and delight. What it must have felt like in the moment, the mindstate one would have to have to create such a thing! The be that. To be there. To be. How marvelous.
It reminds me of the huge difference between mind-calming and mind-numbing activities. Huge difference between no-thought meditation and blankness of mind. Subtle rivers of movement and color run through it, stir and dissolve, full and empty, bouyant, light, deeply comforting. An all-embracing, silently singing, hug.
The noted art critic Hilton Kramer once said Martin’s work was “like a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer.”
A few more paintings follow, as well as quotes from articles about Martin, her life, her works, and her philosophy.
“Agnes Martin’s world is one of order and tranquility, as minutely patterned grids and ruler straight bands expand across vast surfaces suggesting wide open space. Yet there is also sensitive musicality at play as lines tremble and colour relationships become vibrating rhythm, tapping into the profound realms of human spirituality.” —Rosie Lesso, Agnes Martin: Mystic Minimalist
“According to Agnes Martin, both paintings and contact with nature can prompt a greater awareness of what she calls perfection. Her essential view of the world is of daily life superimposed on top of an underlying perfection. Both paintings and nature, she believes, provide opportunities for a glimpse into another way of being in the world. The work of art links the daily to the sublime; or, in Martin’s terms, by engaging and moving the viewer, art can reveal the basic perfection. According to Martin, perfection is almost like a map, if we pay attention. Once we have received a glimpse of perfection, she believes, we can seek it on our own, and the reaction to perfection is joy.” –Joanna Webber, The Image Journal
“Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this … that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature, an experience of simple joy… My paintings are about merging, about formlessness … A world without objects, without interruption.” –Agnes Martin
“Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.” –Agnes Martin
“[Martin’ adopted a palette of muted shades of brown, beige, gray and white, sometimes warmed by soft washes of pink, orange or blue. The colors and titles, such as “Mountains,” “Dark River,” “Starlight” and “Leaf in the Wind,” suggested the landscape and skies of her adopted New Mexico. They were not realistic depictions but rather subtle evocations of the sensations and emotional weight of the natural world.” —Matt Shudal, Influential Abstract Painter Agnes Martin Dies at 92, Washington Post
“Artwork is a representation of our devotion to life.” –Agnes Martin
A Secret Garden for my Granddaughter, mixed media by Deborah J. Brasket
I’m painting again, thanks to my granddaughter.
She turns 8 years old next week and custom ordered two paintings for her birthday. The painting above, which I dubbed “A Secret Garden,” originally was a watercolor and oil pastel abstract, sans critters, that I painted long ago. But as much as I liked it, it seemed missing something. That’s when I added a humming bird, Audrey’s spirit animal, and wrapped it up as a Christmas gift for her last year.
She seemed to like it, but then one day said, “Grandma, don’t you think it needs some more critters down here hiding in the garden?” I had to agree with her, but didn’t get to work on it until a few weeks ago, adding the deer and fox and quail we see on a daily basis behind our home. A reminder of the year she spent with us before she moved away again, and all the fun we had looking watching wildlife together.
But she also wanted a painting of a white kitten with blue eyes in a teacup. We spent many hours looking at images of kittens on Google, as well as foxes, bats, and other creatures that she’s interested in.
I finished the one below just a few days ago. I modeled the tea cup after a child’s china set I gave her when she was three-years old. I hope she will approve. She’s very particular. I’ll be taking both paintings down to her for her birthday next week, along with a long frilly princess dress, glittery shoes with heels, and a pink, faux fur carpet for her bedroom.
Oh, to be 8-years old again!
For Audrey with Love, mixed media by Deborah J. Brasket
The Devil’s Bridge, St Gotthard Pass, JMW Turner, 1803-1804,
It’s all about the mind, of course. All experience filters through it, the outward and inner, nature and the art it inspires. But some paintings arrest the mind more than others and invite you to linger. To become part on one’s own mindscape, images we return to again and again to express the inexpressible. And that call upon us to articulate what it is that moves us so.
The one above by JWM Turner is one such painting that looms large in my mind. It’s the gold that captures me first, the light that dazzles. A feast for the eyes, the mind, before you ever enter the painting. And then, what depths! What flow. The water coursing down the chasm, the travelers flowing across the bridge, the airy clouds lifting us up. The dark shadows carrying us, like the two tiny birds, far before.
The drama of it all. The mystery. Like life itself. Dreamlike. So deep and wide and far away and dissolving in a moment. Yet for all of that, it matters. This matters. This moment, this painting. Something so deeply significant is happening here and even though we do not know what it is, it matters.
Henri Manguin, The Parkway
Here, a very different landscape to enter. Again, what captures me first is the tangle of colors, the reds and blues, soft greens and sparkling golds. The deep shadow in the forefront with the mysterious woman sitting so quietly, turned away, inward, while the forest path winds past her, lost in the distance, and the trees loom over her, curving, lifting, a tangled torrent of upward movement. The glimpse of clear blue sky in the top right corner, a whiff of promise.
But the light, the light! Filtering down through the trees, dappling the path, dazzling the daisies, and gilding the ground before her. The light that surrounds her and lifts the path out of darkness, that filters up through the tangled trees to the crisp blue promise overhead.
Paul Gauguin – Mata Moe
This one, for all its similarities, has a different feel. Again, it’s the colors that grab, that tantalize before we even begin to decipher what we are seeing. Not a tangle of colors like the last one, but great emphatic splashes! The mountains in the distance fairly shout, look at me! And the eye does not know where to go next, there’s so much to see! All my exclamation points make the same emphatic point as this painting.
We’re like a traveler in an exotic location. We don’t know what to look at, where to go first, so much calls us. The large birds lazily crossing our path, the man about his mysterious work, the path curving toward the women walking, the whimsical house, the dense forest, the palm tree leaning upward. So much movement, so much color, excites us. We are there, we are there, immersed in the moment. This is not a dream.
Children at the Beach by Maurice Prendergast
This one just makes me happy. Pure bliss is written all over it. The children at the center, enveloped by the sea and sky, dazzle the eye. Their playfulness, those splotches of light-hearted color, are mirrored in the dappled sky above, the dappled sea-shadows and reflections below. It’s as if they are floating in some aquatic space, cradled, cuddled.
Oh, I want to hold them forever! I could stay here all day watching. They make me so happy.
Van Gogh, The Sower
Here, so different from the others, the mood more mellow. Yet that golden sun, setting or rising, we know not which, like Turners golden mountain, commands the eye. I’m not just drawn toward it, I want to enter in, to rest there, in that roundness. I want to sink deep into it.
The rest is just framework. The dark tree leans toward it, the orange leaves a fitting crown. The man below, the sower, sprinkling seed-gifts in its wake. The solemn fields patiently awaiting its warm rays. I feel at peace here. Even with the dark-shadowed man silhouetted so softly before it. He’s on this way home. His long golden rest awaits.
‘Pelican Island’, 2006 – Peter Doig (b.1959)
When I enter here I find silence. No words. That is the painting’s most salient feature for me. The merging of sea and sky, the fairy-like bird and trees, the trailing leaves above, the blue boat below, are all dreamlike in the distance. All mere contrast. The mirage-like details that draw the mind downward into that deep warm pool, the stillness below. The stillness of no words.