art, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

Looking Deeply: Art, Poetry, and Presence

Barry Lopez in his children’s book, Crow and Weasel, writes, “Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.”

Stories connect us to the people who came before us, the narratives they live out and the tales they tell us about what the world is, and who we are in the world. We live by the stories that have shaped and taught us. They give meaning to our experience and direct us in our journey. Stories condense experience, give us the opportunity to examine our difficulties, and to reflect on how our struggles might enable us to grow.

The oldest form of story is poetry. Before poems were ever written, they were told. People’s histories were given in poetry–words constructed to call up experiences through sound and imagery that evoked emotion and helped people remember who they were, what they had done, and why it was important. In listening to poetry, we can step inside a reflection of life that holds up a mirror, and at the same time speaks to something beyond what is experienced. It is a way to reconnect to what it means to be human and to the mystery of existence. As Dana Gioia writes, “In a moment’s pause another world / reveals itself behind the ordinary.” By extension, because poetry was once connected to other art forms, stories, music, and dance, these are doors we can open to that allows us to walk into a larger reality, to see the world from a wider perspective.

image

The idea that the physical world intersects with the spiritual world is an ancient one, found in many traditions; the Celtic, Catholic, and Native American being a few examples of these. St. John Damascene, a Syrian monk who lived from c. 675 or 676 –to 749 CE, wrote a defense for the use of icons (see more here) that shaped the direction of the church. Though others at the time argued against the use of icons and representational art. God is bigger than any particular physical form, the thinking went, and therefore representation of God in icons should not be allowed. St. John of Damascene argued, however, that if God became human in the form of Christ, then two are intermingled. The sacred could be seen living and breathing through the human form, and therefore it was completely acceptable, he argued, to create icons, to worship through icons, and to paint the human form. In fact, art was a way for the illiterate to see God, Damascene explained, and to read the story of God’s compassion for and interest in humans through the paintings. Damascene demonstrated an acceptance of paradox, and the idea that one’s thinking doesn’t have to be contained in tight boxes of either or. William Dalrymple, in his book, From the Holy Mountain, quotes Damascene saying, “‘…the flower of painting makes me look, charms my eyes as does a flowering meadow and softly distils the glory of God in my soul.'” Through painting, as through nature, Damascene declares, God communicates his presence in the world, and art is a central way in which humans can experience and connect with the Divine.

imageThough Dalrymple describes the cave where St. John of Damascene wrote these thoughts in The Fount of Knowledge, as “crude and primitive,” he goes on to say that, “Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.” I’m very grateful for Damascene’s words and thoughts regarding art. Without them, we’d likely be deprived of much beauty, and the spirit that speaks through that beauty.

In her poem, “Pray for Peace,” Ellen Bass speaks of this interconnection of the everyday world around us with the world of spirit.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

Though a way of communicating half forgotten these days, Bass helps the reader to see that prayer can be any act we do with full attention and heart. When we pay attention to our lives, doing what we love presence, that is prayer–a breathing, walking prayer that adds meaning to our lives, and enables us to grow toward wholeness. Making a routine out of things saves energy and time, but even routines can be done with attention and heart. How do we cultivate the kind of noticing awareness in our every day lives, the ways of being that enable the act of living to become prayer?

Involvement in a creative act is a central way to connect the physical world with the inner world. Though there are a variety of art forms that can enable a person to live in fuller awareness of a connection to life’s mystery, writing is an excellent path from which to begin this journey. Whenever I leave the house, I carry imagemy journal, a small book that easily fits inside a pocket. I carry it because at any time something might appear, or someone might say something that needs to be noticed, and I want to be ready. My journal is my fishing line, so to speak. Though I may miss many things swimming in the world around me, because I’m prepared with pen and paper to notice something, I am more likely to find and catch something than if I had no tool at all to help me. Whatever I’m working on as a writer, I look and listen for moments that speak to me while moving through the day—a random phrase, a gesture, a sudden familiar scent that might embody the idea I’m reaching for in a writing piece I’m working on. I remain attentive to sounds, textures, colors, actions—the world’s details that define a place or time. As a result of knowing the questions I’m living with and what I’m looking for, things tend to show up and announce their connection like a kind of internal spark. Suddenly, as if witnessing the embodiment of a metaphor, I see, for example, how something I’m looking at or hear is related to something seemingly completely different. The discovery has a wonderful quality to it, and to then write it out is to be able to embody that insight. Sharing it with others deepens a sense of connection to the world.

Writers aim to name the world, and doing so is to participate in a kind of co-creation of life, at least this is how I experience what happens while writing, and it is one of the motivating reasons to write. To write is to observe closely, and to observe closely moves me to an awareness that I am part of a greater something beyond myself–that I swim in the mystery of existence. Writing is a path that allows me to enter a space where I’m both fully present in my life, and somehow not present at the same time as I step inside the weave of words. This is because I’m living inside of the thing I’m writing about, and what I’m writing about is bigger than me. As poet Nicholas Samaras explained to me once, writers are always writing, even when not writing. I agree with Samaras when he says, on Poetry Net, “God is in the point of my pen.” In losing myself in the work I am doing, I’m made more alive, full, and solid. It’s a paradox.

image

Writing poetry can be a kind of prayer. My father wrote stories and poetry, but my mother taught me to pay attention to the world around me. She constantly noticed the natural world, flowers on the bank or scent of orange blossoms from the orchard, bees at the birdbath, a fox that came through the front yard, or hawks that circled above the hill behind us. The wind as it blew through the pines where she grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was an ancient choir, she said. As she described the experience to me, I could hear the wind as if it were real. She recalled wild gooseberries’ tart flavor, and told me the names and shapes of wildflowers that grew on the land of her childhood home. Her descriptions lived in my mind as if they were real. Even though where I grew up in eastern San Diego county’s dry desert–very different from the Black Hills, I felt preciousness my mother’s memories of her childhood’s natural environment. Her respect for those experiences nurtured in me a love of my own childhood’s natural environment.

I played outside every day as a child, climbed around on granite boulders, or sat inside the branches of an avocado, umbrella or pepper tree. Our front door often stood open to the outside air. I ran through the yard barefoot, watched clouds parade by, and sunsets spill across the horizon. Coyotes’ yips echoed through the valley in the evening. Crickets sang. Stars came out. These were all gifts, and I belonged to that earth. The experience of growing up in such a place with the opportunity to experience the natural world as part of the rhythms of every day life created in me a foundation for wanting to remain connected to the earth. To have our feet on the earth, to literally ground our selves there, is life engendering. If deprived of such experiences, I think our bodies and spirits still long for them without possibly even knowing it.

image

Poetry relies on imagery and figures of speech. It integrates the physical world with the world of language. It tells abstract ideas by recreating the physical world. It reconnects the writer and the reader back to place, and this is a central reason why I find it so powerful. In our world, the culture of the workplace pushes us to compete, to gain power and control. When writing poetry, however, I interactively participate in reconnecting to the physical world and the presence residing beneath and inside the movement of life. I trace my origin of wanting to write back to these childhood experiences of connection to the earth’s vibrant, sustaining presence. Willa Cather writes in My Antonia, “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” To be able to wander in time, to play in a landscape or place is to be transformed and enlarged by it. Writing poetry focuses the writer on presence, and in doing so, helps move the writer toward wholeness. I recommend it.

image

art, Looking For..., place

The Found Art of Hampi, India

IMG_8615
Hampi from the Tungabhadra River

A plain dotted with trees and scattered with boulders, Hampi in the Indian state, Karnataka, is a beautiful landscape. My recent visit there during the Diwali holiday allowed me to wander into India’s rural outback, and to laze against sun heated granite by the Tungabhadra River. During the 1500s, the Vijayanagar had a population of 500,000. The empire covered the entire southern portion of India, but Deccan Plateau sultans joined together and defeated the Vijayanagar army. The temples’ treasures were carried off as loot, much of the population was killed, and of those who weren’t killed, many fled. One of the world’s mightiest kingdoms fell to ruin, and gradually into obscurity.

Four hundred years later, Robert Sewell, a British civil servant stationed in India, wrote about the empire in his book, A Forgotten Empire Vijayanagar: A Contribution to the History of India. Much later, in 1986, Hampi became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In addition to being a World Heritage site, Hampi is also a place of important religious significance for Hindus. As the stories describe, Hampi is the hill where Shiva, the god of destruction, did penance before marrying Pampa. After Shiva married, the gods poured gold onto the Heamakuta hill. According to the Hampi India website, Heamakuta, means heap of gold.

Hampi’s temples and ruins are spread over more than 10 square miles, or 25 square kilometers. There is much to see, and the carvings are fantastic. Though a place of enormous significance for many people on the subcontinent in the 1400 and 1500s, Hampi and the Vijayanagar empire are mostly unknown to people outside of India. As I walked along near the queen’s palace, I ran my hand along one of the carved walls. “My hands are touching history,” I thought to myself. “My hands touch what the ancients have touched, yet I understand so little.” Whether at a ruins of an ancient empire, or walking down the street of our hometown, our lives are enveloped in mysteries. We just don’t often recognize it.

After our day of exploration at the ruins, we went on a walk on the grounds near our hotel. We stepped across bamboo bridges stretching over the river, looped up across massive granite faces. Turning a corner, we tucked ourselves through a wooden door between leaning rock slabs. As we stepped inside, it seemed we had entered into a rock cathedral with windows of sky beaming through the stacked boulders. We continued climbing a short distance to an opening where we stood, at last, to view the valley spread before us in a 360 degree view. It was as if we had entered a secret door that enabled us to see the whole world. What a wonder it was, too–a plain filled with trees, and a river meandering through it with granite boulders balancing in precarious positions and leaning agains each other in dramatic angles. Nature like this is not a site often seen when living in one of the world’s mega cites like Delhi. We scanned our eyes across the landscape, fishing for greenery, for sky, for what we didn’t even know how to name. Our hearts simply opened to the world, and when we left the hilltop, we knew something inside us had shifted. We were lighter, and ,paradoxically, somehow more solid. Nature writer Barry Lopez says, “real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness to understand it.” This is because when beauty touches you, you slip into a place that is beyond rational thought and abstraction. The divisions between the physical and spiritual worlds collapse into one unified presence. That presence is far bigger than the mind can hold. You are humbled and made whole again.

IMG_9022

The beauty of Hampi’s temples is definitely worth traveling a long distance to see. The setting of the ruins themselves, though, is what sets Hampi apart from other locations. In this landscape, you can learn that everywhere is a temple if we have eyes to see it. To be there is to walk around in a colossal expanse of found sculpture, an installation art piece of gargantuan proportions, the origins prehistorical. Everywhere I looked, I saw art emerging from the earth.

The earth is in an ongoing creative act. If you listen, you can hear it speak through its myriad forms. The wind in palm trees chatters with stiff, clattering branches. Wind through bamboo scratches and cracks like arthritic bones. Wind through neem trees speaks with a restless, dry and fragile sound like crinkled onion skins. The earth tells its stories.

In my continuing desire to learn Spanish, I’m reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse book series in Spanish. Currently, I’m reading Una momia al amanecer, or in English, A Mummy at Daybreak. The children in the novel, Annie and Jack, learn how the Egyptians “tried to protect the body against death by preserving it for eternity.” (p. 45) Travel to the Vijayanagar empire’s ruins, however, assures the visitor that empires are temporary. All we have can be lost in a moment. Even stone wears away and topples. In Hindi, Vijay means victory. Victory, if found, is elsewhere, not in empires.

The final stanza of Louise Gluck’s poem “Summer Nights” reads,

Balm of summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived–
what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?

Life is so dear, and life is full of both imperial joy as well as sorrow. You don’t seem to get one without getting the other too, at least that is what I’ve observed from living in India. Everything is being destroyed and made at the same time. Maybe that is, in part, why art is necessary. It reminds us that we participate in the creative act of life. Perhaps this is why temples have so much art. Religion means to rebind, and the creative act helps us to re-member–to put our selves together again.

art, Wonder

Holding Time in the Presence of Art

As I walked down the subway tunnel in St. Petersburg, Russia recently, observing the living river of people moving in the opposite direction, I thought about how vast the world is and the ideas it contains in people’s thoughts beyond the world I know and live in. Emily Dickinson wrote, “I am nobody, who are you?” It is a line of poetry I identify with as one who has lived outside my own country for more than two decades. When traveling to a new country and encountering entire cities filled with people who have a different history, who wear clothes with a different sense of style, and who don’t speak my language, I’m again made aware of my smallness.

I had come to St. Petersburg to see the art as its museum, the Hermitage, an art museum known as one of the finest in the world. Once inside the vast building, we found ourselves wandering through rooms of Rubens, Rembrandt, Gauguin and crystal chandeliers.

Stepping into the room that held the da Vinci paintings, I noticed how crowds clamored in front of them, hoping to get a glimpse. One man I noticed worked his way up to the front to look at the painting of the Madonna Litta through his phone’s camera lens just long enough to take his snapshot, then turned immediately away. Observing this behavior repeated by others as well made me wonder what is it we actually see when we gaze at a painting? Most of us aren’t trained artists. What are we looking for and what do we find when viewing art? When does a painting speak to you and why? What makes it stand out in someway beside all the others of similar subject matter? Is it the name of the artist that tells us this painting is from a master and therefore valuable, or is there something more? To what level do we actually see something of ourselves and our world in the art we view?

One of the reasons I appreciate visiting art galleries is for the glimpse they give into other minds, other ways of being. It is also a way to time travel. If you recall when you last visited an art gallery, you probably remember seeing paintings of people you’ve never heard of, or paintings by artists you know little about. Perhaps you see the portrait of a duke or a countess who were considered to be somebody in their day, and an artist painted their portrait, maybe even a well-known artist, but today hardly anyone passing by even knows who they are. Thinking again, of the anonymity in crowds, I began to take more notice of paintings of people and by artists I’ve never heard of when I came across a painting that said it was by an unknown artist. Neither the artist or the subject are known by name, yet here the portrait or sculpture was, hanging in the gallery. No one crowds around to view the paintings by the less well known, but thousands see them every day in galleries like the Hermitage, and someone recognized the value of the artist’s work so that it ended up in the gallery. What might these pieces have to say?

When I encountered this painting of Ivan Kramskoi by Ivan Shishkin in the Russian Museum, it seemed as if Shishkin could step out of the painting and have a conversation with the people in the room. He appears so alive, ready to engage. Shishkin was a landscape painter, and Kramskoi was a leader in the Russian democratic art movement. The realistic quality of these paintings is echoed by another painter of the 1800’s, Nikolai Ge, in his Portrait of Olga Kostycheva, a girl whose eyes reflect a kind interior sadness.

Standing before the portrait of Marina Derviz, by Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant, I felt I wanted to know her thoughts. She appears sensible and the upturned edge of her lips suggest she is kind. Her face seems open and approachable, even though she wears a stiff high collar and pearls demonstrating wealth and status.

FullSizeRender (6)
Pavel Chistiako, “Jovannina Sitting at the Window Sill”

Art reflects life and the artists’ way of seeing and interpreting life. There are a variety of reasons an art piece might speak to a person, of course. Some paintings I observe for what they might say about how the artist used the brush strokes to create the form. Other paintings I recognize from seeing copies of them in books. Still others depict familiar stories or embody larger ideas or responses to events. It’s interesting to see the artist’s interpretation and perspective of these events and stories, and this is an activity that requires close observation and interpretation of gesture and facial expressions. This painting by Pavel Chistiako, Jovannina Sitting at the Window Sill is beautiful in the quality of quiet reverie it evokes.

The sculpture on the left below by Gleb Deriuzhinsky is of an unnamed woman and is simply titled Female Portrait. Next to it is, Youth by Ekaterina Belashova-Alexeyeva. Both depict a woman without a name and instead, reflect life at a particular age and moment.

None of these artists or art pieces was I familiar with before seeing them in St. Petersburg, and yet they are of excellent quality.

2,000 years ago, Socrates taught people by asking questions. He didn’t work in an established school. Instead he taught in the streets. He was a “nobody” in the sense that he didn’t write anything down himself. Plato’s written version of his dialogs has helped students of succeeding generations to see how curiosity and reflective inquiry can help us to better understand our thinking and that of others around us. The older I grow and the more I travel, however, the more I realize there is so little I truly understand or grasp of the world around me. Constantly, I’m lead back to the mystery that life is, and this is what happens to me when I stand before art such as these few pieces I’ve mentioned. Vistors walk by a thousand art pieces and see their beauty, the immense skill, the hours and hours of dedicated work and effort they represent. There are rooms and rooms of art, and “experts say that if you were to spend a minute looking at each exhibit on display in the Hermitage, you would need 11 years before you’d seen them all,” says the Hermitage museum site. We can hardly take in what it means. It’s too large to grasp. Socrates said, “I know that I do not know,” and we consider him a wise man. Maybe the beginning of any kind of understanding is the humble acknowledgement of our smallness. Our life experience can lead us into an understanding of what is important in life, but in the face of all the flow of humanity and the experience represented there, in face of all the art, it’s also worth recognizing that there is much we don’t know and can’t do. We are led back to a place of humility, and perhaps even awe at what it means to be alive, to be part of history’s vast river. This, again, is a valuable reason to view art–to gaze into other worlds and to listen to what is being expressed beneath the words because art, by its nature, leads us into a world that communicates beyond words and is both inside of time and is in some sense timeless–speaking to us of our bonds to humanity beyond a particular period. When viewing art, we look into the face of humanity in its variety of activity, moods, and moments, and for a few moments we hold time before us to savor and wonder at its meaning.

IMG_5852
Queue, by Alexi Sundukov

Art works are invitations for reflection and serve as mirrors of the time and society. They communicate a way of seeing and expressing the world, inviting us to see something about ourselves, ourselves in relationship to the world, or the artist’s vision of the world. Art asks us to notice texture, color, shape, line and form—the fundamental essences that compose physical reality. In how much of our lives do we function on routine procedure? Art is there to bring us back into a place of being, to rejoin us with the awareness our humanness and to enable us to connect consciously to the life we live.

So, what do we see when we look at art? We can ponder the open face that appears ready to engage in communication and those that are haughty. We can notice Kadinsky’s playful lines, the energy explosion on a Pollock canvas, the quietness of a Monet haystack under morning light. We can also learn from those who wanted to be “nobodies,” whose aim wasn’t to be known, but instead focused on doing their work. We can make it our aim to be the unknown life-giving presence to the unknown face in the gallery by the unknown artist who reveals his or her life’s message, a message that might be simple as taste the water, watch the circling bird, listen to the song inside a boysenberry’s bursting juice as you bight in, dance with the village, or notice the pain inside the choice you made and what it teaches. Rest in the window. The Persian poet, Hafiz, wrote in his poem “Deepening the Wonder”

The impermanence of the body
Should give us great clarity,
Deepening the wonder in our senses and eyes

Of this mysterious existence we share
And are surely traveling through.

If I were in the Tavern tonight,
Hafiz would call for drinks

And as the Master poured, I would be reminded
That all I know of life and myself is that

We are just a midair flight of golden wine
Between His Pitcher and His Cup.

Art asks us to deepen our wonder, to recognize we are but the liquid flight between the Master’s picture and his cup. Art asks us to look at life as a felt experience, to notice humanity and the world in its myriad expressive forms and appreciate its diversity. We want our lives to have meaning, so why not practice noticing the life we live. Next time we look at an art piece, or the things in our world that art depicts— the cup resting on your table, the face of a stranger or the one you love, notice the texture of things, the color, the turn of line. To practice noticing as a way of returning to being. What are the questions the people and things you observe are asking underneath the surface of their presence? Let’s listen to the things, to faces and bodies and beings.