In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.
Thank you, K. and G., for the gift of these flowers, and E. for an equally beautiful bouquet of roses and lilies. (My friends know how much I love flowers and plants.)
We've been hosts and guests at two dinner parties this past week, and both reminded me how fortunate we are to live in a peaceful country and to have close friends with whom to share our lives: joys and difficulties, special events, good food, and just the simple passage of time.
Notes below...you might prefer to watch the video in fullscreen mode.
The Lachine Rapids are a stretch of impassable water in the St. Lawrence River just upstream from the city of Montreal. Jacques Cartier was the first European to discover them, in 1535, and they stopped him in his search for the Northwest Passage.
Ships can now go around, via the St. Lawrence seaway, but the rapids are just as impressive and daunting as they must have seemed to the early explorers. Kayakers go down them, and tourists in inflatable boats...we saw both while we were there...but the risk of drowning seems very real. Fishermen are required to wear flotation vests, and visitors keep a close eye on their children.
There's a narrow path between the river and the still ponds on the opposite side, and a lot of native wild flowers augmented by natural plantings with species chosen to attract and support wildlife.
This park is a public area within a large migratory bird sanctuary that encompasses several islands in the middle of the river, and it's filled with bird life all year. Redwing blackbirds were very prominent while we were there, along with many ducks and geese, and of course many seagulls and other marine birds. We saw a dozen white egrets on the protected Isle aux Herons in the middle of the river.
We sat for a long while watching a flock of common terns feeding above this section of the rapids. They're one of my alltime favorite birds -- I love watching them fly.
It's pretty amazing to stand in the same spots where Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain must have stood -- you can almost hear them saying "Merde!" The rapids can't have changed much at all in the five centuries since then, and the power and magnificence of La Fleuve remain undiminished.
Last Friday was our 33rd anniversary, and as we usually do, we took the day off and went out for an outdoor adventure. This time we took our bikes to the path along the Lachine Canal, and rode up to the Parc des Rapides, where the inland river journeys of Jacques Cartier and Samuel Champlain ended many centuries ago. The rapids are extremely impressive, and I'm working on a little video to show you what we saw.
But we also took some photos of ourselves, and J. took a few of me, standing by these rocks on the path. To his complete surprise, when he looked at the pictures after getting home, something else had appeared in the frame, just at the right moment! I can't identify this hawk because I can't see the wing bars or tail bars. The compact body and general dusky tone of the feathers make me think it might be a marsh hawk, but I'm wondering if any of you can give a more positive I.D. In any case, it's one of those weird photos you couldn't take if you tried.
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.
Saturday morning I spent some time in my garden, watering and deadheading the spent flowers. My neighbor, Eric P., has an incredible stand of brilliant red crocosmia, and when I was done with my work I stood and sketched these exotic flowers. It seems a little weird to focus on the form of something when its color is such a standout, but of course when you take away the color, it makes you really look at the form -- which for these flowers turns out to be very cool. They open in order down the stem, with each successive bud slightly larger and more elongated, until the ones in the back start to unfold. The form is like a set of triangles: the triangle of the entire flowerhead is mirrored by the two triangles of each side, both when seen from the top down or from the side; the bloom is always held above the plane of the stem.
What makes each flower cluster so beautiful, I think, is that they twist gently in different directions, none the same as its neighbor, and all are in different stages of opening. The busyness of the flowers is contrasted with the simple spear-like leaves, in this case in a clump taller than me. They remind me of delicate, fluttery, show-off tropical birds in a green tree: a big clump of Crocosmia is pretty impressive, especially in a northern garden.
I've never tried to grow crocosmia but I feel lucky to be able to enjoy Eric's! Some of you who live in tropical climates must know this plant well. I think it comes in yellow too, but the red is a knockout punch. One of these days it will make its way into a painting: it's too fabulous to portray only in black-and-white.
It's been a long, hard week, full of dismaying world news and, here at home, a lot of work and looming deadlines. I've had my nose to the grindstone for much of it. I used to have a lot of resistance to doing my professional work; I thought that all I wanted to do was have more free time to paint or write. When I did get some free time, I often made excuses instead of actually using it well. Somewhere along the line I saw this pattern and my attitude changed. I'm really glad it did, because resisting what you need to do, and have to do, makes it ten times harder to get it done, and to do a good job besides.
Then, there are a lot of reasons why we resist what we say we want to do the most, or manage to make it into agony rather than pleasure.
Dave Bonta recently pointed me to a terrific essay by writer/philosopher Will Buckingham, "The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing." In it, Buckingham takes exception to Hemingway's famous quote about writing being nothing but "sitting down at a typewriter and bleeding." He writes:
"But difficulty is not something in itself that we should shun, and neither is difficulty something that people in general do tend to shun. The world is full of people doing difficult things. It’s astonishing. The prevailing orthodoxy that people are, at root, lazy — as if human beings are little Aristotelian universes, and need some kind of outside prompting, some primum mobile, to get things going — is simply nonsense. Sometimes, to be sure, people are doing difficult things out of necessity; but very often, people are doing difficult things because difficulty can be fun."
Learning to persevere in any creative pursuit is really the key, I think. In painting and writing I may get started fine, with enthusiasm and inspiration, but eventually I often find myself in a thicket -- some sort of difficulty, maybe like the middle game in chess -- and have to find my way out. I've come not to dread this, but to expect it. Sometimes it means putting the work aside for a bit, sometimes not -- but working through that sense of being lost and uncertain is actually the most satisfying part of the whole endeavor.
It can be hard to learn this on your own, and it seems to me it's where a lot of talented and enthusiastic people eventually lose their enthusiasm and may even quit. It helps a lot if students are exposed to an older mentor at some point. You can't teach patience and determination and self-motivation, but a mentor can encourage and share her experience, and model his way of working -- and maybe offer a few key words that will be remembered down the road. A focus on the "tragically struggling artist" may be romantic, or have entertainment value, or be part of someone's attempt to build an artistic identity, but as Will says, it's a pretty destructive image for talented young writers or artists of any kind, who need the tools to shape and live a whole long life, enduring the inevitable ups and downs in as healthy a way as possible.
I live with someone whose ability to keep at it, without drama or complaint, has taught me a lot. When I asked J. what taught him to persevere toward his goals in the face of difficulty, he immediately answered "sports." My dad would no doubt say the same thing: he's still playing competitive table tennis and working on his golf game at age 89, and often tells me about the subtle things he discovers and then practices in order to improve -- in spite of the aches and pains of his aging body. J.'s father, who lived to 99, was still reading and reciting Arabic poetry and discovering new insights and pleasures in it at the very end of his life. My painting mentor went to the studio every day, well into his late 80s, and told me he felt he was "just learning to paint."
For me, as a young person, it was several things: learning to play instruments; a summer course at a college when I was 16 where we had to show up and paint for four hours every single day regardless of how we were feeling; and studying ancient Greek in university -- something that was hard and demanding for three long years; I wasn't even particularly good at it but I thought it was a magical, fantastic thing to do. Forty years later I find that same passion and joy of learning in many areas of my life. Mistakes and failures are inevitable, but the more you persevere, the more you see that they're an intrinsic part of the learning process, and so you actually begin to appreciate your failures too. In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki suggested that the difficulties in contemplative practice are like weeds, and that we can grow to love them as much as the flowers: he wrote "a weed is a treasure." It shifted my perspective a lot when I was able to see that.
Do you agree that difficulty can be fun? What helped you learn that, and how do you encourage yourself to keep going when you run into difficulties in a project? Do you continue to have mentors/friends, or belong to a writers' group or other collective gathering of like-minded people? Do your online friendships figure into this equation? They (including you readers!) are certainly important for me.
...because we all need to gaze on some beauty, and I'm sad that I haven't got time to paint or draw these flowers from my garden today, but nevertheless want to offer something in memory of so many senseless, tragic deaths.
And some there be, which have no memorial;
who are perished as though they had never been...
And if you'd like to listen to something, here is "Nimod," from the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar.
What a devastating week it's been. I just wanted to post this snapshot I took a few days ago, from the upper floor of a medical clinic. These two waiting mothers had been smiling and interacting happily, drawn together by their children, who just wanted to play with each other. It's not as though Montreal is a city rife with ethnic or racial tension -- it's not, though there is a certain amount of separation, perhaps to be expected in a place where there are so many immigrants. This scene simply made me feel a little better: a reminder both of what's possible, and of the happy naiveté of children who haven't learned hate or fear. Honestly, if the world were run by women, who bear the responsibility for life's continuation in their very bodies, I don't think it would be the way it is.
Family Coffee Pot and a Fossil (Thinking of Gaza). 9 1/2" x 8 3/4" . Acrylic on paper, July 14, 2014.
Richard Rohr's meditation this morning contained a lot of wisdom. Being a Franciscan, he was talking about how Jesus embodied this way of "being peace," but I've taken the liberty of removing the Christian language, hoping everyone can find the truth in these words without being turned off. What he says is certainly true for me, and my experience. And I appreciate that he states that this is work -- a lifetime of work and practice for most of us.
"Negativity unites most people far more quickly than love. The ego moves forward by contraction, self-protection, and refusal, by saying no. The soul, however, does not proceed by contraction but by expansion. It moves forward not by exclusion, but by inclusion and by saying yes...There is really no other way to save us from ourselves, and from each other, until we are saved from our need to fear and hate.
Conscious love is the totally enlightened, and often entirely nonsensical way out of this universal pattern. Love has to be worked toward, received, and enjoyed, first of all, by facing our preference for fear and hate. But remember, we gather around the negative space quickly, while we “fall into” love rather slowly, and only with lots of practice at falling.
This is exactly what contemplative practice helps us to do. Meditation is refusing to project our anxieties elsewhere, and learning to hold and face them within ourselves and within God."
For once, I used the best hours of my morning to paint today instead of getting lost in my computer and work responsibilities. J.'s parents brought this coffee pot with them when they immigrated to the United States in the mid-1940s. The fossil shell reminded me of the Sea of Galilee, and the "living stones" - a phrase used by Palestinian Christians to describe themselves; a diminishing remnant of two thousand years of Christian presence in Palestine.