Still life with Mounir's ceramic donkey, wedgewood pot, and Turkish tiles.
Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends.
I find myself thinking a lot about what to paint or draw these days. With Gaza and our chaotic world so much on my mind, it's hard to focus on simple beauty: it somehow seems trivial, oblivious to reality, self-indulgent. And yet simple beauty and simple pleasure are what nearly every human being desires, and deserves.
The little ceramic donkey in this drawing belonged to my father-in-law, so it's precious to us. I think it came from his native Syria, though I'm not sure; to him it was a reminder of the donkeys that used to bring fresh cool water from the mountains into Damascus. In the later years of his life, he had a whole menagerie of small animal figures: birds, monkeys, camels, an elephant, snakes: a veritable Noah's ark. None of them were to scale, which gave the arrangement an even quirkier air. When he still lived in a house, they were arranged around, and in, a large houseplant. After he moved to a retirement home, they were on a wooden stand, and he sometimes liked to rearrange them for his own amusement. His favorite was a tiny mouse made of ivory. One day it disappeared and he was disconsolate. We searched everywhere but never found it. He blamed the housekeeper, saying she must have knocked it onto the floor and vacuumed it up. After he died I hoped it would turn up as the apartment was emptied, but it never did: I like to think it scampered away to live behind the bookshelves, exactly as long as he did.
Last night I began reading Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun ("Bab al-Shams"). It's been on our shelf ever since we heard Khoury read at the Blue Met literary festival in Montreal some years ago, when he was interviewed and spoke about his close friend Mahmoud Darwish. Afterward we went up and met him, and he inscribed this copy to J., whose grandmother's maiden name was also Khoury. The novel is a story of relationships that contain Palestinian and personal histories; it is woven together rather clumsily - as the NYT reviewer notes - from snatches of stories, but this was a deliberate device by the author, who tried to write in a way that mirrors Palestinian reality: the history of the nation and each person seeming torn and patched together.
The novel is written in the voice of a surrogate son sitting at the bedside of his "father," an elderly freedom fighter who has had a stroke and lies in a coma. The son, a medic in a hospital in a refugee camp, spends most of his days bathing and caring for the dying man, refusing to believe he won't regain consciousness, and then at night, like Scheherazade, tells him stories, hoping that the words are still penetrating. I've been afraid of reading it, and now, even though I've started, I still am.
In addition to the tragic and horrifying events it recalls, the book of course also reminds me of my own dialogue with my very alert, very aged father-in-law, and of the last few months when he slipped in and out of present time and space as we sat by his bed, talking to him and listening to his own stories. When he died, at 99, a door into our family's life and history closed forever; now we too must patch it together out of fragments. Last night, when the narrator began reciting bits of verse by al-Mutanabi, perhaps the greatest of all classical Arab poets, I felt myself back in the familiar room with its blue and yellow silk carpet, the books lining the walls, the statue of Socrates on the stand in front of the old shortwave radio, and my father-in-law, leaning back in his chair, eyes shut, smiling at the ceiling as he recited poetry.
Terrible times can paralyze us, or we can use them, turning their negative energy into something better. Perhaps the time has finally come for me to pull out those dialogues that were collected here under the title The Fig and the Orchid, and see what can be done with them. As sad as my father-in-law -- a former UN administrator of a refugee camp in Gaza, among his many positions through a long life of teaching and ministry -- would be over the events today, he always believed in the power of education, beauty, literature, noble ideals, and -- most especially -- reason and truth. He often spoke about their remarkable ability to endure across the millenia, lifting people above the worst.
"The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.
Al-Mutanabi, I have just learned, was the son of a humble water-carrier.
Longtime readers here will know my views on the Middle East situation, and that those views come from many years of familiarity with the cultures and societies in question. So it's probably no surprise that I am feeling pretty sad and discouraged about the latest escalation of violence, and the fact that nearly 100 Palestinians are now dead as a result, with countless more injured.
When are we human beings finally going to internalize the lesson that violence simply begets violence, and that the cycle of retaliation never ends? When are we going to understand that no one is better, purer, more exceptional, or more chosen than anyone else on this planet?
To blame all of this on religion is a cop-out. Yes, religion has been responsible for a great deal of suffering and war throughout history. But ethnic conflict, based often on the conviction that one group is superior to another, has also played a very large part. It doesn't matter where the idea of exceptionalism comes from, or who originates that narrative, it always points to the same ends: prejudice, inequality, oppression, exploitation, separation, subjugation, expulsion, violence and ultimately genocide. These actions are always justified by the powerful who believe that their lives are worth more than the people they are oppressing, and who create a convincing narrative of how threatened they themselves are by the less powerful group.
A decade and a half ago, as some of you know, my husband and I helped from a Muslim-Christian group that met once a month for prayer and friendship, sharing our stories and celebrations and a meal. We met for three years, from the second Intifada through 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq war. During that time we made repeated personal invitations to the Jewish community to join us. I met with the local Rabbi who assured me of his support, but neither he nor any of the members of the local synagogue ever came to a meeting. I am very sorry about that, because we all could have learned a lot from one another. We did work together with some Jewish anti-war protesters, almost all women who were part of the group Women in Black. Some of the people who joined our weekly street-corner protests against the Iraq war and Israeli violence in Gaza were Jewish, and very courageous for the stand they were taking for peace. One of those people was the poet Grace Paley, who I was privileged to know. Another was Susannah Heschel, professor at Dartmouth and daughter of Abraham Heschel. Like my dear friend Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, their voices truly were crying in the wilderness -- not too pejorative a term for America on this particular topic. In Israel itself, the moderate and progressive voice has always been much stronger and more consistent, but the government -- like the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing drone war against "terrorists" that has killed countless civilians, women, and children -- has consistently taken a different path, one which has made the world far less safe and far more radicalized than it was in 2000.
A group of pilgrims from our cathedral recently went to the Holy Land, spending quite a lot of time in Palestine. They met with Parents Circle, and heard the stories of Palestinian and Jewish parents who have worked tirelessly for peace, while grieving their own personal tragedies. We don't hear enough of those stories in our media here, and we don't do nearly enough to support peace efforts, hospitals, schools, cultural and relief programs that are attempting to care for the victims of this awful conflict without regard to their ethnicity or religion.
Please don't use the comment box to take sides and argue about politics; it is utterly pointless and if that starts happening -- as it does whenever I've mentioned this issue here -- I will close the comments. We need to find solutions, and to look deep within ourselves. This is an ongoing tragedy in which Americans participate through our tax dollars, and which will ultimately affect us all. Ask yourself what you can actually do. I try to continue to act in memory of my father-in-law and mother-in-law, both of whom experienced these conflicts first-hand, but also lived in Damascus and Beirut and Alexandria at a time when all three religions lived together harmoniously. Inpired by the knowledge that this was possible, thay always hoped and worked for a better world for their children.
We took a quick trip across the border recently, for business, and drove through some of the small towns at the very top of New York State. In comparison to the well-kept Quebec farms, these areas look hard-hit by the economic downturn, just as it does in central New York where I grew up. The original downtown of Champlain, New York, is pretty much abandoned, the fine old brick and stone structures empty, boarded-up, windowless. Rouse's Point, on Lake Champlain itself, has a large marina and some restaurants on the main street, but all the shopping has moved to new little malls with a grocery store, post office, drugstore, liquor store and laundry on the outskirts. For bigger shopping trips, the residents probably drive down to Plattsburgh, 20 miles south.
We stopped for lunch at a diner, The Squirrel's Nest, in Rouse's Point. The diner was one half of two connected storefronts; the other was a bar with a few tables and a heavily-varnished massive wooden bar with curved ends made of glass blocks; it looked like it had been there a long time. We sat at a booth in the diner and ordered the soup and half-sandwich special. The soup was hamburg-macaroni -- what my mom used to call hamburg chowder - and it was just as delicious as hers. The turkey salad sandwich came as a piece of roast turkey in bread with mayonnaise - not exactly turkey salad, and without a tomato slice or lettuce leaf in sight -- but good anyway. The placemats and the walls were decorated with black and white historical photographs of the town: fine old homes and hotels, sleighs and snowstorms, factory workers, women in white shirtwaists, carriages, old signs. A few old artifacts and antiques also hung on the walls. As in central New York, a lot of people look to the past for their identity; why wouldn't they?
A stuffed squirrel presided over the restaurant's old soda fountain, with its stainless steel fixtures. "Wow," J. said, "I wonder if they can make a milk shake."
I shrugged. "Why don't you ask?"
But the waitress - a teenage girl -- looked confused at the term "milkshake" and said she'd "have to ask the kitchen."
"Don't worry," J. said. "I was just looking at the old soda fountain and wondered if everything was still working."
"Oh, no," she said, "that stuff is just there for show -- it's, like, from the fifties."
"Yep," I said to J. after she walked away. "And so are we!"
Bougainvilla, hexagonal tile and chased copper bowl. Pen on paper, 9" x 12".
I've been wanting to buy a bougainvilla for years but they're a) expensive and b) hard to grow and winter-over in the north. Mexico City put me over the top, though, so when I saw some first-year seedling plants thsi spring at one of the flower kiosks near a metro station, I picked one up...and once you pick up the pot, you're done for. The proprietor was knowledgeable and I asked him some questions about wintering the plant over - he said he and his partner do it every year, and so long as there's enough sun and you don't over-water, it will be OK. What the hell, I figured -- this wasn't a $40 hanging basket. I've had good luck with lantanas at our studio, where the winter light is quite strong and constant and I can keep a good eye on the plants - I cut them back pretty ruthlessly when they get leggy and pale, and they come back every year. Have any of you tried this with a bougainvilla?
Anyway, I want to paint it before I put it in its permanent pot, so today it got sketched. The flower bracts are strange, kind of like poinsettias, very much like a different kind of leaf - and they are an odd shape - a set of three petals that almost form a cube or square. Like a dog that has to circle around its tail three times before lying down, I seem to have to study plants by drawing them before I can do anything else, certainly not the simplification that will be necessary here. Of course the color is the main thing, but I like the plant's sturdy gangliness too.
My father-in-law's birthday was a few days ago, and I've been thinking about him -- he would have been 105. Through his stories, bougainvilla also makes me think of the Middle East, so I added a chased copper bowl that is part of a set from J.'s family, and am thinking about some other characters who could play a part in a still life. The bowl worked a whole lot better when I turned it upside down.
Jonathan with a bougainvilla in all its glory, at the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadelupe, Mexico City.
One more photo from the lake: my mom's lilies-of-the-valley, blooming away - a whole bank of them - and last year's drawings.
Still life with lilies-of-the-valley in a wedgewod pot and a Palestinian purse.
Still life with lilies-of-the-valley, wedgewood pot, and animal skull, in two versions and line weights.
I've just come back from a few days visiting my father, during which I stayed alone at the lake house. He came up during the days and we worked together to get the property ready for him to move back there with his girlfriend this summer. For me, it was a wonderful retreat from city life, combining some good hard outdoor work with a chance to enjoy the solitude of the natural world, and seeing a few friends. As it turned out, I had some rather startling encounters with other creatures -- but that story will be told later!
In the mornings I got up early and took my breakfast down by the shoreline. There were birds singing; chipmunks scurrying; sunfish, bass, and carp basking in the shallows. The three mornings were all different; one day the lake was completely still, another breezy, another foggy. At night I went out on the deck to look at the stars, and slept with the bedroom door open, listening to the frogs and insects. It was just what I'd needed, and worth the long drive back and forth through the Adirondacks and the Mohawk Valley.
My dad is doing really well. At 89, he's planning to compete in table tennis in the New York State Senior Games next weekend in Cortland, and though he's got some stiffness in his legs, seems to be functioning well on his replacement knees and hip. I sure hope I inherited those particular genes; he inspires me to stay as active and limber as I can.
My dad and me at the lake about thirty years ago, in the 1980s.
Staying in the house my parents built also has its sadnesses and strangeness; not much has changed and there are so many reminders of my mother, without her actual presence. I wouldn't say it feels "comforting;" it doesn't. I can't help but wonder how much longer my dad will be able to take care of the house, but I'm glad he still can, and wants to. Of course, these realities make me constantly aware that I'm getting older too. But the sadness doesn't have a sharp edge anymore, nor does my fear of the future. Even rock becomes smoothed by time, and nature, the great teacher, accepts each day in turn.
Tarn in the Ruahines. 15" x 6 1/2", acrylic on paper.
I haven't been able to get a really good photograph - the image above is too contrasty even after being corrected in Photoshop, but it gives the general idea. The details below are a little more accurate for the color but the shadows are still too dark. Agonized over this one; the hills and lake came easily but not the foreground, but I'm ok with it now. It's tricky: how to make a picture that reads well at a distance, but has a lot of interest when you're up close too.
Tired! Going home.
A Rocky Pool. 11" x 4 1/2", acrylic on paper.
This was a bigger painting with a stream running out of a forest above this section. I didn't like the top of it and cut it off; all the energy was in this pool. I like how even though the scene is in New Zealand, it felt to me as if it could be in the Adirondacks, or anywhere in northern New England or eastern Canada.
Ruahines 2. 13 1/2" x 7 1/4". Acrylic on paper.
This is a painting I started on Saturday and finished today. It feels like kind of a breakthrough for me in using this medium, so I'm feeling happy. I like how I can use a combination of watercolor and oil techniques, and work rapidly on paper, though I'm using Golden's Open Medium to keep the mixed colors from drying out immediately. Again, thanks to Robb Kloss for his inspiring photos of New Zealand's Ruahines. These mountains, once they're above treeline, remind me of Iceland even though the vegetation is different, so there's a familiarity and emotional reaction that are probably helping as I paint.
The color is a bit more accurate in the details below.
Tech notes: this is a very limited palette of five colors plus white (see below.) It's more work to mix the colors but I always think the result is more unified and harmonious that way. As in watercolors, if I were using a different blue or yellow as the base primary, the resulting overall tonality would be different. Just scratching the surface in terms of knowledge of comparative transparencies and so forth. It turns out that I just don't own very many acrylics to begin with -- and some of the tubes I did have were dried up and had to be thrown out. Time for a trip to the art supply store! And I'm extremely pleased to be using paints that were made only a few miles from where I grew up, by Golden Artist Colors, a very progressive employee-owned company that's providing a lot of jobs in a depressed area as well as making one of the best products worldwide.