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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
She calls herself a “musical consort to time.” She once wrote: “I endeavor, through music, to delve into all time spaces to tap resources of knowledge and power as ancient as the Universe and as young as unborn worlds.”
After listening to her music, I’m convinced this is true.
I’ve never been a huge fan of ambient or electronic music, but I discovered Strom’s on Sunday while drinking my morning coffee in bed, as I always do, and skimming through the day’s headlines on my cell phone. I came across an article about her in the Washington Post. Her first new music album in 30 years, “Angel Tears in Sunlight,” has just been released to much acclaim. It is also her last album, as she died recently in San Francisco.
She was born blind 74 years ago and became a pioneer in electronic music. Her her first album, “Trans-Millenia Consort,” which I’ve included below, was released in 1982. But alas, she was blind, she was a woman, she was fiercely independent, and she was playing in a man’s field of music.
After the release of her first album, she released her work independently out of pure passion. While not widely recognized, she had a fan base that kept her music alive underground. Appreciation for her music was reignited when a compilation of pieces from her previously self-released albums came out in a new album called “Trans Millenia Music” in 2017, garnering much praise and a new enthusiastic audience.
One of the things I enjoyed most about listening to her music that morning on my phone was being able to feel the sound-vibrations in my finger tips. It added a whole new physical dimension to the experience. Interestingly, while listening to it, my fitness tracker registered it as a “deep sleep” experience. Perhaps because of how finely tuned-in I was to the sound waves flowing through me, as if I was travelling with her through time in my own inner-space. A fine consort she is.
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
Women Dancing in a Circle Warren B. Davis (American, 1865–1928)
Long ago my daughter gifted me with a CD of sacred music from around the world. It became a favorite to play during my morning meditation and exercise routine. I’m not sure you can get the CD anymore, but I was able to find a few of my favorite songs on You-Tube.
If you listen to these, you will notice how the music often starts slow, which is perfect for meditating, stretching or Yoga. But then the rhythm picks up and it’s almost impossible not to want to jump up and move, to dance or jog along with the beat.
The first song, Shema Yisearel (“Hear, O Israel”), is a sacred Jewish prayer sung in the morning and evening. Rita Glassman is an ordained Cantor and composer.
This next one is a mantra sung to the African Goddess Oshun of rivers and waterfalls, the “unseen mother present at every gathering.” Deva Premal is celebrated for her spiritual and meditative music.
This last is a Hindu mantra, or universal prayer, which roughly translates, “You Divine Mother are my everything.” The song ends with the “Om Shanti, Om Shanti, Om Shanti” chant, an invocation for peace. Gina Sala is also well-known for singing sacred chants.
I wrote this years ago, a kind of declaration for a state of being with which I passionately identified, although it seemed so beyond what I or anyone could reach at the time:
Epitaph for a Tombstone
I am compressed within my skin like a time bomb.
There is more to me than time allows to be.
When the end comes I’ll explode like an atom.
It is my end to explore infinity.
It seemed at the time I wrote it that there was so much I wanted to do and explore, and yet I wasted so much time on trivial things, that I feared my end would come before actualizing even a fraction of my potential. I could not accept that such would be the end of me. Surely this keenly felt unlived life would burst through the shell of being into something infinitely elastic, and all that I was or was meant to be would be realized eventually.
Now that my end of days have grown so much nearer, that sense of there being more to me than time allows to be has not diminished. But I think of it somewhat differently. That escape into an ever-expansive sense of self no longer seems to lie upon a birth-death or time-space axis but within the here and now which defies such limitations.
That smallness of being which so ill-fits us, which pinches and punishes, which we all in this present life seem heir to, does not define us and has little in reality to do with us. It’s but an ill-shaped mind-box that seems to contain us but never really can.
It’s as if this limited life which seems to bind us is like a box with four sides. Before and behind us are Birth and Death, and on either side are I and Other. Below is the Ground of Being which supports us. But there is no lid above. It is open to the Wonder or Mystery of Being, enticing us to rise beyond the strictures of time and space, birth and death, I and Other. Inviting us to explore what lies beyond this small sense of self; and so we do, each following our bliss. Through exploration of the sciences or creative arts, or by pursuing the ideals of freedom, equality, justice, service, selfless love, and the common good, we rise somewhat out of our smaller selves into something more expansive.
But until those opposing walls of birth and death, time and space, and I or Other collapse, we are still confined within a smaller, ill-fitting sense of being. We can slip in and out of that box, but cannot escape it altogether. Death is not the door that frees us. Mind is.
Rising to a higher, more expansive sense of self that identifies both with the Ground of Being that supports us, and the Wonder of Being that surrounds us, we find our freedom. There the restrictive walls that would bind us collapse for lack of identity.
All the great spiritual teachings point in that direction. Not toward something outside or apart from us, but toward a more expansive identity : the Kingdom of God, Enlightenment, the Tao. All lie within a higher consciousness or understanding of being.
We know this, it is not new. Nor is it far away. We all taste it, hear it, glimpse it in rarified moments even within this limited sense of self.
When one student asked the sage to show him this higher reality we sometimes call God, the master said, “There, do you not smell it?” as their feet crushed the sweet arbutrus beneath them.
Nothing is hidden. We all catch that whiff of the infinite in humble and exquisite ways along our journey within.
But perhaps this is all too esoteric. Here’s something more concrete.
The other day we all learned how President Trump had contracted Covid. Not a fan of Trump and angry at how he had been been downplaying the disease in a way that appeared to cost thousands of lives, I was not sympathetic. I thought this was his just dessert. I even felt a bit gleeful since he had been mocking Biden about wearing a mask only a few days previously. I hoped he would experience more than mild symptoms so that he would have more compassion for others who had suffered, and not come away saying it wasn’t so bad after all, nothing to worry about to his followers.
Yet thinking this way felt uncomfortable, like putting on shoes a size too small. They pinched. But I couldn’t quite lift my thought away from such feelings, thinking them justified.
The next morning during my spiritual practice my thought completely shifted as I once again began to identify with this higher sense of self, where I and Other melted away. I felt this deep empathy and sympathy toward the president. Not toward his plight contracting Covid. But rather toward the plight we all share when confined within this small, tight, pinched sense of identity. I thought of what he could be, and actually is, when those four walls of restriction fall away and he too experiences that more expansive sense of self where there is no I or Other.
I remembered what his niece, Mary Trump, had written about his upbringing, how he’d been shaped to be the boastful, selfish, egotistical man he seems to be, how his values and sense of self had been warped. Each of us have similar life experiences that shape and limit us, that we all need to outgrow. Perhaps this Covid experience will help him. Perhaps not. Either way it wasn’t my business.
My business was to lift my own sense of self beyond the thought-patterns that had so pinched the day before. To experience the deep sympathy that rises from the ground of being and unites us all. To once again savor that sweet wonder that lifts us beyond ourselves.
In the Time of Corona we all need a little mothering on Mother’s Day.
A huge influence on my understanding of what “mothering” is, or could be, is found in the Tao Te Ching (CHXXV):
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 Tao in this passage. And what I see as God, the divine Creator, the all-pervading, all embracing, unchanging, and unceasing. It’s what evolves, supports, nurtures, protects, and provides space for all its “children,” all individual being.
A tall order for a mere human.
Yet something about that passage spoke to me as a woman and mother. It drew within me the desire to embrace my children in that spirit. And I found the mothering of my own two children improved immensely when I was able 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, as the latter. 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.
This is not to say that I often meet this ideal. Far from it.
But I know I mother my own children best and make fewer mistakes when I’m able to embrace them in that larger, more expansive way. And it feels more natural, less constricted, to mother that way.
I find this kind of mothering works best when all-inclusive. 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.”
Mothering, I 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. When you adopt that stance, all things become your children to nurture, cherish, support, love—to help bring to their full potential.
Here’s wishing you all a lovely day of “mothering.”
First printed in a slightly altered version on these pages in 2015. More “mothering” images below.
When I first encountered one of Sohan Qadri’s paintings, I was plunged like a pebble into a still pool, radiating ripples of bliss.
An overstatement? I don’t think so.
The effect was profound, even if the words I use to capture it fail.
“A synthesis of emptiness and peace, radiating power,” is what Qadri is trying to express in his art, he writes.
”Art can have the same effect as meditation,” he tells us, “but only if we drop our constantly interpretating mind and learn to simply see . . . . This can happen if you grasp the painting at a subliminal level, let it filter in through your pores.”
With me at least, he succeeded.
His work is made from thick soft paper deeply saturated in brilliant colors, punctuated by ragged tears and rips, wavering furrows and trails of tiny pinpricks, like scattered drops of light–or bread crumbs — leading toward the vast unconscious.
“When I start on a canvas,” he explains, “first I empty my mind of all images. They dissolve into a primordial space. Only emptiness should communicate with the emptiness of the canvas.”
“People are always interested in dreams. I am interested in the question: ‘Who is the dreamer?’” Qadri writes. “I would like to know: ‘Who is the artist behind the artist?’”
When I entered his painting, I felt the presence of the artist behind the artist.
I think I was drawn to his work because when I’m writing, in some way, I am always trying to do that as well, tap into the writer behind the writer.
At my best writing, I feel as if it’s not “me” writing, but something writing through me, beyond me.
As writers and artists, I think we are seeking to move beyond ourselves, dip our pens and brushes into the deep storehouse of the unconscious, the rich field of the imagination, where colors and forms and images and emotions flow.
We tap into it and let it flow out through us, filtered by our experiences and sensibilities, onto paper or canvas.
Readers and art lovers are also seeking to move beyond themselves, to be swept away into other worlds–magical realms or gripping tales created by words, or rich fields of form and color beyond conceptual thought.
The best writing, the best art, for me is when we feel the presence of the creator behind the creator, and recognize, if only for a moment, the face of our larger selves.
This post was first published in a slightly different format in June 2013.