Antiques in a shop window.
Greenwich Villagers. I love her sharp gray peplum suit, and the pink baseball hat with his seersucker.
Just in front of Washington Square.
A great striped sweater-coat. And a bow in the hair.
Washington Square: fountains, guitar music, hanging out.
Dog-walkers. (There's a dog-run in the Square; always a scene.)
Oops, he caught me. That dubious look over the specs...
After that we met our friend at her nearby apartment and went out for pizza, and then walked down Lafayette to Chambers Street.
The new tower, from the back of the courthouse.
And back across the Brooklyn Bridge.
So...back to New York. This was the view when we emerged from the Fulton Street subway station in lower Manhattan; that's the new building at the World Trade Center site in the background. It's incredibly tall, and looked almost unreal in the early morning light.
Two spires: St. Paul's Church in the foreground. J. and I stopped in a deli for a bagel and coffee, and then we split up; he went off to a camera store and then to visit a cousin whose office is nearby, and I decided to walk uptown on Broadway. I was headed for 12th Street, about 30 blocks north, and we planned to rendezvous at our friend's apartment in Greenwich Village around 2 pm. The only problem was the heat, which was beastly. My solution was to walk until I couldn't take it anymore, then step into an air-conditioned store for a while, of which, of course, there are many. But the focus of my walk was the street.
Construction. Always. In the middle of everything.
Suddenly, upscale retail: this is a window display at Kate's Paperie, SoHo.
Street scene looking north, Chrysler Building in the far distance.
Street fashion and make-up.
Typical, incredibly beautiful building facades of lower Manhattan. When I reached Canal Street I took a detour to Utrecht Art Supplies, where I bought some blocks of Arches watercolor paper in interesting sizes, and stood letting their big fan blow on me for a while. Then I headed back to Broadway and resumed my walk.
And we've got some for you...a whole store devoted to Converse All-Stars.
At Dean&Deluca, an ultimate deli. I went in to cool down.
Some of their fancy cookies. Those purple octopi are $4.50 each, but they're certainly cute. I didn't buy anything to eat, but somewhere around here I bought a loose black tank top, much cooler than what I was wearing, on sale for ten bucks, and changed my clothes in the store's dressing room.
Houston Street, the dividing line between SoHo (south of Houston) and Greenwich Village.
Grace Episcopal Church, Astor Place.
And its interior.
Finally, my destination: The Strand: "18 Miles of Books." I had a quick sandwich across the street, and then went in to browse. A whole huge store of English language books!
(next post: back down to Washington Square, and a long walk back home across the Brooklyn Bridge.)
And here's the full image. We rode down Vanderbilt Avenue from our bed-and-breakfast, down along the old navy shipyards, along cobblestone streets, and finally onto this boardwalk and under the Brooklyn Bridge.
It's quite the view of lower Manhattan.
And at the far left, there's Lady Liberty, presiding over the harbor.
We've been up on the Esplanade in earlier visits, which is really beautiful, but you don't get the same connection with the water and the city beyond as you do in the new park. They've done a wonderful job; rolling berms separate the park from views and noise of Brooklyn, and there are thick plantings of native shrubs, lots of grass, and while there are some nice kiosks for food and ice cream, it's not at all commercial. There are low-key, low-intensity spots for sitting, for families to cook a barbeque, recreational areas including some huge lovely playing fields and a rocky park with fountains and waterfalls for kids to play in, and this end of a pier, fitted out with stainless steel sinks and bait-prep areas for fishermen.
"What are you catching?" I asked. "Striped bass," this fellow told me. He was from Puerto Rico, and a veteran fisherman. "Des catchin blues ovah deyh," he said, pointing toward Governor's Island. "And deyah too," indicating the tip of lower Manhattan. "Bluefish?" I said. He nodded, grinned, and shook his head. "Not heah! Dunno why." I asked him what they used for bait and he explained and showed me: a big fish that they cut up into pieces. Each of the fishermen had four rods, which they bait, cast, and then set against the railing, waiting. Seemed like a contented way to spend a hot day, down by the water in the breeze.
Then we rode back up into the city of Brooklyn, and stopped for lunch. The service was very slow - a new chef had come on that day, they said, so I had time to sketch the people at the next table on the butcher-paper that covered ours.
We were really hot by that time, and unfortunately a little sunburned, so we went back to the B&B. I took a shower and then went out to explore the neighborhood and visit The Community Bookstore, which TC and friends has shown me on a previous visit.
I also found a fabric store with a beautiful selection of Indian cottons, including the piece above. Couldn't resist. And at the bookstore I bought, appropriately enough, the latest issue of Granta, titled "Travel," in which there's an excerpt from Teju's forthcoming book on Lagos. Smaller and larger, both, our world.
The light filtering through the leaves this morning was so beautiful that I had to try to express it. All I had at home was this scrap of Arches hot-press watercolor paper, wonderful for detailed illustrations but not what I normally use for looser paintings. The paper has very little texture and quite a lot of sizing, so the paint stays in place, sitting on the surface, and doesn't run around or blend very much; you can glaze with further coats of color with less danger of muddiness. On the other hand, it's harder to make lovely washes or spontaneous marks and confluences of color, and you don't have the little nubs of a more highly textured paper that add highlights and sparkle to the image. Nevertheless, it was interesting to experiment with it, and there are parts of this painting that I like a lot.
Doing art teaches me a lot of things, one of which is patience. I used to be so impatient! But I've noticed that something has changed, whether I'm sewing or painting or playing the piano -- I'm just more willing to stay with it, even when it's not going well; more accepting of the outcome, more willing to trust in and enjoy the process for itself.
I think living in the city has helped me be more patient too. You have to wait for other people, wait for the traffic light to turn, wait for the train to arrive, wait in line at the bank or the check-out -- it's not like jumping in your car in the country and going where you want, when you want, even though that might take quite a while, but, dammit, you're moving. In the city you spend significant amounts of time every single day stopped somewhere, waiting. And you can either let it get to you, or learn to just be there in that minute, or five, or fifteen.
The Quebecois are not impatient or nudgy people, either. They don't honk, they don't get annoyed if they're in a line -- or if they do, they don't show it -- it's more important to them to be polite and have a decent social atmosphere. It makes such a huge difference in your own level of irritation and impatience not to be on the receiving end of other people's frustration! I wonder if this will change over time - some people worry that it already has - but this extra measure of patience and regard for the collective, rather than me-me-me, is something our visitors always notice too. By the same token, when we've taken our Quebecois friends to the U.S., they always remark on how hurried and impatient everyone seems to be, especially in traffic, but elsewhere too. It's not that way everywhere in America, but unfortunately it is in a lot of places -- and for all I know, may be more so in other big Canadian cities.
The environment you grow up in certainly shapes you, without you even being very aware of it. I went from a languid childhood in a small rural town to a big competitive university, and then became a business partner and very busy person in a college town. Now the pendulum of my life seems to be swinging back; even though this is one of the largest cities in North America, with well over 3 million people in the greater metropolitan area, there's a lot about living here that reminds me of my hometown in the 1950s and 60s. The ambition of my middle years is still with me, but it's softening, and I sure hope I'm easier on myself. And perhaps it seems paradoxical, but I notice that I actually get more done, and do it better, when I'm not pushing as hard. It was so nice this morning to spend time just looking at the light, and the trees, to drink some coffee and then paint, slowly and steadily, but completely absorbed in just that one thing.
On the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, I facilitate a meditation/contemplative prayer group at the cathedral. This particular chapel is normally used for weekday eucharists and the 8:00 service on Sunday mornings; the altar is to the left of this picture, and usually there are about two dozen chairs set up in rows facing it. On Tuesdays I go in early to rearrange the room -- we move the heavy iron kneelers with a hand truck, and put down a plain white cotton carpet, set twelve chairs around it and move the others to the sides, and place a large candle - I bought this one from nuns in Mexico - on a low table in the center. After the daily office of Evening Prayer is finished at 5:45 pm, we turn down the lights and gather in this room; I usually give a brief talk or a reading or a guided meditation, and then we sit in silence for two periods of 20 minutes, with a brief break so that people who want to sit for a shorter period can leave. At the end we leave in silence, with a few people staying to help me put the room back into its normal configuration.
This week I had a little extra time beforehand, so I sat down and made a sketch, and then added some color later. One thing I'm discovering during this month is that I simply don't enjoy detailed, careful architectural sketching. Catching the feeling of a place is one thing, but I don't have the patience, inclination, or interest to do it perfectly. More power to those who do! (I didn't think I did, but now I know it for sure!) In fact, I'd like to try a charcoal or pastel drawing of this same space, to try to get the dusky ambience of it as the sun is setting.
During our meditation this week we had so many interruptions! There are the inevitable sirens and honking horns and loud voices from the street outside; the verger mistakenly turned the lights up when they should have been turned down; then there was a businessman, with briefcase and cellphone, who came into the church from the side door opposite us, couldn't get through the passageway to the back that leads to the diocesan offices, and proceeded to make a loud phone call expressing his annoyance and frustration to whoever was on the other end. Apparently he didn't see, or didn't look to see, that people were silently meditating across from him. One of us got up and helped him, gently ushering him outside and pointing him where he needed to go. In spite of all that, this week's gathering had a very good feeling: calm and deep, with a sense of the collective peace that sometimes comes from a group meditating together.
Interruptions are, as the Buddhists would say, "grist for the mill." They are the weeds in our practice, and one learns to be grateful for them, and for what they teach us. When I was beginning my own meditation practice, back in Vermont many years ago, it used to drive me crazy to hear the neighbor's lawn mower, or children's voices playing in the street. Now I'm rather glad that we don't meet in a retreat center set far away from "the world," but rather right in the middle of it, on the busy main street of a major city. Meditating in this sort of place teaches us that we too are part of the world, and the world is part of us. As Thomas Merton wrote: "One does not go into the desert to escape others, but to learn how to find them."
Yesterday morning I sat in the waiting room of the clinic where I have my annual medical exams. Something had changed since my last visit: a huge black television monitor occupied one wall, with the channel tuned to CNN.
It was impossible to ignore; the small waiting room had been turned into a screening room, where even patients who didn't want to watch were forced to listen. In the space of just a few minutes, I heard commentators speculate that this might be the day that North Korea decided to launch a missle. I heard reports of a new, deadly strain of bird flu in China, and an outbreak of meningitis among gay men in Los Angeles. There was discouraging discussion about the gun control bill, and a story that parents in Japan are starting to refuse to allow their children to come to the U.S. for university study, because of a perception that the country is becoming too dangerous.
A white-coated tecnician came into the room to get a cup of coffee just as the meningitis story was playing; the screen showed large electron-micrographs as the journalist's voice intoned the latest statistics. Oh dear, said the man, turning to me with a dismayed look on his face. He stood for a few minutes, riveted to the screen, and then walked out the door to begin his day.
My doctor came to the door and called my name; I was glad to escape. But during the morning I had to come back to the waiting room several times, between visits to the nurse for blood work, an EKG, and various other appointments. Each time, I watched the behavior of the other people in the room, all of whom would turn to face the TV, shaking their heads at each grim, frightening story. Last year, most of them were absorbed in their cell phones. I looked for a magazine or newspaper; unlike former visits, this time there was only one, an old issue of Vanity Fair; instead I pulled a book out of my pack, but it was very difficult to concentrate on the words.
Finally I turned to one of the other women and said, "I'm American, and really, this is part of what I came to Canada to escape."
As it turned out, she was originally American too, from North Carolina, but we had a pretty different take on things. She was conservative, I more liberal. While I objected to being force-fed anxiety by inflammatory stories in the media, she insisted it was "important to be informed." "I'm really worried when I go to the U.S. now," she said. "If I go to a shopping center across the border I really look around me at the people; it seems like anything could happen. Everyone has guns." Well, yes, I agreed, many people do, and I think that's a big problem. But you have to look at the statistics as well; your chance of being killed in a Wal-Mart in Burlington, Vermont, is not extremely high.
We both finished our appointments and went home, where in the afternoon we learned what had happened in Boston, and the cycle of horror, speculation, analysis, and fear began spinning all over again.
I don't want to add yet another voice to that sad and mostly-well-meant cacophony. I've spent many days of my life in Boston, and my heart goes out to the people of that city. If there is something concrete I can do to help, I will do it.
What I've been thinking about is the television in the waiting room, a Canadian waiting room, that once was a quiet place where people read, or talked to a companion, or even simply sat and looked out the window. Its presence seems to me an ominous symbol of something that has gone very wrong in most western societies: our inability to be with ourselves, to cope with the essential human condition of solitude, especially in situations that cause our anxiety to rise. It concerns me that, in our secular, post-liberal-arts, technological, perpetually-connected society, so little effort goes into teaching children how to be alone, showing them the richness and solace of time spent with nature, with the arts and handcrafts, with books and music, with oneself walking in a city or sitting on a bench: eyes open, ears open, mind and heart awake to the dance of life flowing around us.
When I return to the United States, as I did just last week, I'm always struck by the palpable level of general anxiety, so much greater than it is here in Quebec. But is that anxiety, and the corresponding reactiveness -- even in the wake of tragedies such as have been experienced in the past decade -- justified? In today's New York Times, University of Maryland criminologist Gary LaFree states, “I think people are actually surprised when they learn that there’s been a steady decline in terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 1970.” Speaking of both domestic and foreign plots, he noted that there were approximately 40 percent fewer attacks in America during the ten years after 9/11 than there had been in the previous decade. (LaFree is director of the highly-regarded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which studies terrorism and keep a Global Terrorism Database. He adds a note that nearly half the worldwide attacks, and 1/3 of those in the U.S., have never been solved.)
However, I think the media bears a large responsibility for fanning the flames of American anxiety. Supposed neutral channels like CNN feed viewers an endless diet of anxiety-producing stories, while the left and right square off in loud, combative talk shows and news hours, each side trying to out-shout the other. Television is a very powerful medium. Is it any wonder that so many people feel under attack, vulnerable, and constantly anxious, worrying about what is going to happen to them or to their loved ones? It it any wonder that they feel like the entire world is taking sides, at war, that it's us-against-them, myself against the potential unknown assalilant, intruder, terrorist, crazy person lurking in every community? Furthermore, we know that violence begets violence, that copycat crimes proliferate, and that what a lot of perpetrators want the most is publicity.
If the U.S. wants to worry about drugs and terrorism slipping across its porous northern border, then I am concerned about the insidious infiltration of this kind of secular preaching, these incessant sermons of anxiety and fear originating from the south. And much more than that, I wonder if those of us who have chosen to live our lives differently can perhaps be more vocal and intentional about why, and how. The world has always been dangerous for a vast majority of its citizens, but we in the west have been able to ignore that too long. Living positively, with awareness and joy in each day -- in spite of the possibility of death, which can and does happen anywhere, anytime -- is actually possible, as our brothers and sisters in war-torn, poverty-ravaged societies can teach us. And to look closer to home on this sad day: who knows better the fullness of solitude, or the potential triumph of the human spirit, than the long-distance runner?
I made myself a sketchbook to take on our trip. The original plan was to buy one of Stillman & Burns' new Gamma series landscape-format sketchbooks; they're lovely, and the paper is heavy enough to take light washes. But they aren't cheap, nor are they carried anywhere in Montreal, and as a result I left the task of ordering from Toronto undone too long. What to do? Then it occurred to me that I could make my own sketchbook and fill it with whatever combination of papers I wanted! What a revelation! I've made a lot of small notebooksbefore, but never a sketchbook. The other advantage was that I could choose a size that was light and easy to carry. The binding itself is reversible; I can take pages out or add more anytime.
It helps to have a big papercutter and a heavy-duty adjustable binding punch and comb binder; we used to use it for binding reports for our design clients.
I already had these handpainted covers, waiting for a binding, so that part was easy. The next task was to cut up a sheet of a favorite drawing/mixed-media paper, Stonehenge, and another one of Arches 140-lb watercolor paper. It was enough for two books, one slightly larger and longer than this, with plain black covers, and this one. The binding here a flat leather thong; the other book has a black plastic comb binding.
Now I just need to make the time, and pluck up my courage, to do some sketches rather than being on-the-go every minute while we're away. The work of the Urban Sketchers, a growing international movement, both inspires and daunts me, because sketching buildings and urban scenes has never been my forté. What I'm most interested in isn't accuracy, but conveying the feeling of a place or scene.
On the other hand, having this blog, and you, my kind and generous readers, is a great incentive, though I admit that every single time I put pen or brush to paper, a little voice in my head worries about making a disastrous mess! Just do it, I tell myself, as all my teachers have told me too: sketch every day. Some drawings will be a mess, and some will come out all right. No matter what, you'll learn and improve through constant practice.
Funny, isn't it -- after all this time, and all this making-of-things, we are still fragile! I think that this beautiful bright color will help.
"Taqueria Mexico dans la ville" a few blocks from our studio.
To live in Montreal is to swim in a sea of languages. I came here seven or eight years ago feeling my lack of French fluency very keenly. Gradually, it's improved -- through practice and immersion, helped by friendships and our deliberate choice to live in a French neighborhood -- to the point where I can read very well, manage to express myself in most situations, sustain fairly simple conversations, and converse with people who don't speak English. Best of all, I can finally follow the gist, at least, of most of what I hear. At first I thought being shy about speaking was the most isolating aspect, but I quickly realized, no, it was my failure to understand what was being said around me. In a way, it was like being deaf, and reminded me of my father-in-law's last years, when he so often simply tuned out of conversations he couldn't hear or understand, and as a result felt left out -- and he was, in fact, left out unless one of us acted as "translator" for him. I'm grateful to my bilingual friends here who've done that for me during meetings or other events when I was missing big chunks of important information.
But another aspect of Montreal reality is that many people are not merely bilingual, but trilingual, or even more. There are many immigrants and many blended families; people travel a lot too, and they're interested in other cultures, and want to be able to speak at least a little bit when they arrive; it seems like a cultural tendency, even a hobby, among many people in this city. I always laugh when I go to my dentist: in that office alone there are native speakers of French, Spanish, Romanian, and Farsi, which, when combined with my English, generally leads to a lively exchange rather than confusion, because they all find it fun to do that, and so do I.
Two of our best friends here are completely fluent in English, Spanish, and French, and I've been continually impressed and envious of the easy way they switch back and forth. They've been so generous in including us in family gatherings, sometimes with visitors from South America who speak no French or English. I've often wished I could converse a little in Spanish, a language I've never studied. Last year, when our bathroom was being re-done, the expert tile installer often brought his father, an entremely warm, nice man, to help -- but the older man spoke only Spanish. This sort of encounter happens all the time, and always feel like a missed opportunity when there's no language in common.
If I had been born here, I wonder if languages would have become more of a hobby for me, too. I studied French in school, then ancient Greek and German - but the later two were just for reading; speaking a language is different. I have some aptitude for hearing and repeating the nuances of sound -- maybe being musical helps. My problem, as an adult learner, has mainly been time. How I wish I knew the essential phrases and expressions and basic vocabulary in Arabic, Spanish, Italian, German, Farsi, Russian...not to mention Chinese and Japanese! Another potential avocation for a person with too many already!
However, with an upcoming trip to points south, I am finally tackling task #1, and learning some basic Spanish. It's been decades since I seriously studied a language besides French, and I'm finding it fascinating and fun. French turns out to be a help, as well as a confusion - my brain rebels at similarities like "elle" and "ella." (I do feel a little bit like I'm trying to cram new puchases into an already-full closet.) To study and practice, I've been using the online beginner's course offered by "Babbel;" the computer environment offers not only drills in reading and writing, but the benefits of an oral language lab with speech recognition. It keeps track of mistakes and presents an individualized review of my least-internalized material.
I just wish -- as always -- that there were more hours in the day!