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Something about perspective

Igor Stravinsky as drawn by Pablo Picasso in December, 1920

Igor Stravinsky as drawn by Pablo Picasso in December, 1920

When I was eighteen years old, or thereabouts, I was given tickets to a concert of Igor Stravinsky’s music whose conductor was the great composer himself. I didn’t know Stravinsky then; in fact, I think, I knew very little about him except that he wrote the “Rite of Spring” and was deeply, vastly important. And, of course, he was famous.

I invited a friend to go with me that night. She’d never listened to classical music and had never heard of Stravinsky. I guess I hoped I would help broaden her tastes in music.

She slept through most of that evening, and afterward told me what she’d taken away from the experience. She felt sorry for the short unattractive balding and bespectacled man who must have suffered awfully as a child, mocked and bullied by other children. That’s probably exactly what would have happened had he grown up with her in Crow’s Landing, California.

I wish I had known then as I discovered later that Stravinsky may have looked like the unpopular kid in school to my friend, but as an adult in a very glamorous world, he had numerous lovers, most of them real lookers.

It’s amazing how different the world can look from different perspectives.

More recently, at a concert of Russian music, I found out something extraordinary. After half a century of composing some of the most important music of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky, at the age of 70 years, tossed aside his work of a half century in order to devise music from a completely different perspective.

Stravinsky, I think, knew something about perspective.

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A line and a splotch of color

When I was four, or maybe five, I made drawings in crayon of a sailor who was my father gone to war. That was the first and last time I was complimented for my artistic ability. And I never got any better.

sailor

As the years passed I discovered that even a simple line was beyond me. That’s how I first became aware of the importance of the line. I couldn’t draw one. And a line is often, it seems to me, the essence of a work of art. It’s where it all begins. My lines were always clumsy and ugly and utterly lifeless.

For the last two months I’ve been looking at paintings and drawings on Facebook. I have acquired, without quite knowing how, some wonderful FB “friends” who post art every day. And so I “thumb” through 20, 30, even 40 drawings and paintings from the greats of the renaissance, the 19th and 20th centuries, and occasionally, even our current century.

My day is changed by what I’m looking at. I can’t say how, but it has to do with watching whole worlds and people emerge from a few lines and some splotches of color. Chunks of paint become skies rising up out of water. And light. My god, how does a flat, plain canvas come to be filled with light? The light fills a village street, dances in a garden, creases an apple, caresses a cheek.

And the lines, oh my, a line becomes a galloping horse, a mountain, trees shimmering in the wind, a reclining woman. You read her life on her face.

I wonder about those lines. Not too long ago at the Legion of Honor Art Museum in San Francisco I was standing in line with two women, one of whom was exclaiming over the painterly career of the other. When I talked to her−the one in the arts−she explained to me that she’d been utterly incapable of drawing until few years ago when she read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. A simple instruction from the book and she was drawing and painting. At the age of sixty, she’d learned how to make a line on paper or canvas.

Ever since then I’ve wondered. Would a simple change in cranial hemispheres make a difference? Could my ugly line get up from the page and move? Could it come to life?

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My sister and the three hundred million year old plant

Walchia piniformis by Woudloper-Own work License CCB1

Walchia piniformis by Woudloper-Own work License CCB1

I have a smart younger sister. Not genius level, but close enough. She loves rocks and Native American artifacts. Not long ago, she phoned me to tell me something incredible had happened. “You’ve fallen in love,” I suggested. “Someone offered to buy your house for twice its worth.” Or, barring all that, “your tortoise is pregnant.”
Imagine my surprise when she explained that she’d found a 300 million years old plant. A three by four foot fossil—a cypress-like plant called Walchia.
To put the 300 million years in perspective, dinosaurs thrived 220 million years ago.
She found her plant at the Kinney Brick Quarry in the Manzano Mountains, eleven miles south of the Tijeras Canyon, east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Three hundred million years ago it was at sea level—a brackish place, with shallow water. Now it was at the top of a mountain. A treasure trove of fossils, paleontologists have discovered plants, shell fish, spiders and cockroaches, and even a shark there—and there’s a lot more to be found.
On that day the twenty-five members of the Friends of Paleontology each found their stations and began by removing the old stuff—most of it broken rocks—and then, searched between layers of smooth shale with paint scrapers and brushes, prying the shale away. My sister started looking at pieces of a plant, a plant that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. The question was, should she keep working and take it out, or do what she could to preserve it where it was. She didn’t know, but she was with a bunch of experts and they all gave her the go ahead.
They took that beautiful thing from the mountain. The plant has been put away with other bits of the site, and she may never see it again. After all, it’s just a thin piece of a carbon environment, one bit of a place that’s full of primitive life, all of it hidden away in boxes and drawers now. A place that was lifted up to the top of a mountain from a murky swamp. Amazing. Our planet has had the most extraordinary life.
But finding anything that’s part of that drama “would have been a joy to me,” she said. Not bad for a little sister, I say.

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In Memory of Einstein on the occasion of his 100th birthday

From the European Space Agency, Hubble Telescope image

From the European Space Agency, Hubble Telescope image

In my after life, my photon of light
Chose space by a brilliant sun
And danced a dance,
A long long dance
That was glorious, glorious fun

– A poem by Gil Galloway in 1979

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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Posted in mysteries, the creative life, time and memory

A half-full glass person tries to take on our awful politics

violence008For me and millions of others, last Tuesday, election night, was a travesty. The country is being given over to private corporations, the line between truth and falsehood is disappearing, and cruelty in a whole raft of forms is becoming acceptable.

There have been other conservative takeovers, of course, all of them frightening to engaged liberals. But this one has to be worse than the others. We can always imagine rebuilding our country on another day. Civilizations have risen and fallen, progressive ideas have won and lost. But the prospect of planetary ruin, of our earth becoming uninhabitable because we can’t bring ourselves to do what is necessary to save it – that is intolerable.

We’re running out of time, scientists say. Omygod, say I. But it gets worse. Some political commentators predict that liberals and progressives won’t regain power in the Congress for years to come. The right will zone and rezone and revise voting rules and continue to throw billions of dollars at all of it, so that there can be no reassertion of power by anyone else.

In the throes of all this, and since I’m one of the those “glass half full people,” I’ve been looking for things that please me, that make the world an exciting possibility instead of what it seemed last week. Apolitical things, mostly. Maybe we make politics too important.

  1. Our relationship to the rest of the planet is finally beginning to change. It’s about time! Many more of us are beginning to get it. We share the planet with a wonderful array of plants and animals; we’re related to them all. Life is various and human beings are just one part of it.
  2. People of every ethnicity, race, gender and age are mixing it up. Our colors are changing. Our art, our music, our science, our ideas are rubbing up against each other as never before.
  3. We’ve always needed to eat, food is important, but in the last century food has become an art and a joy. The slow food movement, locally grown food, fresh food, new ways of planting and harvesting, old ways revived. We’re relearning how to feed ourselves. The hell with Monsanto. In the long run, and perhaps, not even that long, they don’t stand a chance.
  4. The internet – well, not just that, but the whole marvelous global community that it ties together – excites me. I know some of what it means is problematic and maybe even dangerous, but the good stuff is even better. We’re only just beginning to know what it means.
  5. And, finally, for a new understanding of our earth as a living being, and of the universe as more than we could ever make up – something that is at once so tiny, indivisible and ancient and at the same time billions of light years wide and utterly incomprehensible. Something that makes being human (and even political) much much less important, though, perhaps – in some odd way — a little more so.

young stars sculpt gas

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Wading through the most beautiful city in the world

Aqua_alta_venise_07

On St. Mark’s Piazza in Venice the September day I was there, the tide was in. Across the square the water was ankle high, and in some places deeper. Tourists from around the world searched for a way to get across from the old offices of the Republic (16th century Renaissance) to the new ones (17th century High Renaissance) where they could buy expensive gifts, have a drink at a table dressed in white linen while the band played, make their way to the Doge’s Palace, or view the Grand Canal shining in the afternoon sun. There, in the nearly ancient shadow of the Campanile and St. Mark’s Basilica, children splashed in the big puddle. A toddler stripped his clothes off. Middle aged tourists – some of them uncomfortable and others amused – removed their sox and shoes, rolled up their pants and forded the Venetian lake. Naked feet at the illustrious center of the world’s most beautiful city.

I’ve seen tourists remove their shoes at mosques, I’ve even been one of them, but this wasn’t so much a sign of reverence as a simple determination to be in Venice – to be intimate with it the way Hindu feet are with the Ganges, the way ears are with great music.

Venice is wet. She may even be drowning. Someday elegant rafts may troll St. Mark’s Piazza. But no one will ever stop visiting. There’s just too much magic there to stay away.

Posted in the creative life

Up

In Firenze (Florence), I lived in the best possible Italian room—straight out of a 19th century novel. It was the last room but one at the end of a dark hallway, filled with quixotic paintings, sketches and odd statuary. When I opened the glass door, the orange curtain at the balcony would balloon into the room and turn everything orange. It was a small room. Most of it was taken up by a narrow bed. A bad copy of a familiar painting was on the wall. It was so bad it didn’t matter which one. On the other side of the balcony doors was a courtyard of gardens where more balconies hung into the space, some with drying laundry, all of them with pots of flowers.

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Early in the morning, bells chimed from a half dozen churches. At night the courtyard filled with Italian voices and clinking dishes from a neighboring restaurant. The sound was like music – there’s rhythm and melody to Italian. But one particular night, sometime after 3 a.m., an ear-splitting rumble of thunder fell from the sky and into my room. Lightning danced around the walls and the world outside my window lit up like fire. I don’t know how old my room was, or how many times over the centuries, or decades, thunder had dropped into it from somewhere up there. But oh, what did believers who frequented the churches where the bells rang and the angels herded whole populations off to heaven or hell – what did they feel when Firenze was targeted by a storm of Biblical proportions?

cupolas, etc.

Up was never more important than in medieval and renaissance Italy where Jesus Christ, his mother, his disciples and his angels filled the high walls and ceilings of cathedrals. The old towns are built on high hills where they’re topped off with towers, cupolas and steeples, and lush gardens are sandwiched between heaven and earth. Even the trees here participate in the heavenly paean. Spikey cypress, pointing up into the firmament, line the hills, tracing vineyards, country drives and the tops of hills.

“Our Father, who art in heaven…” God has been up for so many of us for so many years, we still look there when someone says the word God, or its equivalent. But I can’t believe there’s been any place where up has been of greater consequence than in Italy.highupangels

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Can great art be seen through a lens???

640px-Michelangelo,_Giudizio_Universale_02

Of course I can’t know, but I imagine that in old Europe, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, life happened on multiple levels. There was the everyday where most people lived, their time filled with the humdrum of their lives, with hard labor, their occasional joys, their frustrated hopes. There were moments when that reality intersected with the one that danced across the ceilings of the cathedrals they filed into every week: when someone was born, when they were married, when they died. But most of the time what was important, what wasn’t merely ordinary, didn’t take place in the hovels or apartments of the common man. Nor in his fields or on his busy streets. Instead, the sacred reality fell in great waves of color from the vaulted ceilings and walls of their churches. It perched on steeples and towers and domes. Up there, there were crowds of better beings: God the Father; the Son; Mary, mother of God; disciples and clerics and holy women, and everywhere—troupes of angels.

For centuries, the world came to Italian churches on cobbled hills—pilgrims seeking God, counting beads, genuflecting, signing the cross, burning candles. As time passed, the visitors became increasingly secular. They were students of great art, not faithful devotees. They made a Grand Tour through the churches, palaces , and museums of Europe, an educational rite of passage. They examined the visions of the great Italian artists from another point of view.

I had hoped on my trip to Italy for a bit of a Grand Tour. Not surprisingly, that wasn’t exactly what I got. The numbers of visitors had exploded into the hundreds of thousands. Not unnaturally, it was uncomfortable rubbing up against people in those numbers; it was hard to be awed at the ends of elbows. But the art was still great. The trip was still wonderful.

What was disconcerting was something else. Almost everyone was looking at art or, if you’d prefer, God, through the lenses of cameras and phones. Filipino, German, Scandinavian, French, English, American, Japanese, Chinese—it didn’t matter. Everywhere they held their lenses up to the painted heavens—modern day worshipers of another sort. Peddlers sold extensions for cameras and phones so the tourists could raise them higher, way above the heads of the picture-takers around them. The pictures were much less expensive than souvenirs and they could make so many of them.

They wanted to take everything home with them. They wanted to possess it and show it to their neighbors at home. They wanted to put it on Facebook.

Frequently they wanted to own themselves in it. They took “selfies” alongside the town officials of centuries ago, the gentle people the artists painted into the scenes to flatter their sponsors, looking up at Jesus, waiting for him to die on his cross. The new tourists waited with them.

They shot themselves side by side with the disciples at the last judgment. The trumpets sounded, the pleading multitudes gathered, the damned fell back in horror. The tourists posed in front of the art they were recording—not angels, not saints, not even medieval gentry, just displaced witnesses from another time.

Near Michelangelo’s David are other sculptures, some of them roughly hewn, the figures still emerging from the stone. One of the most moving of these is a pieta. The son of God is shockingly pitiable, and dead, deader than anyone I’ve ever seen. Did the pretty blonde and her boyfriend who snapped her there, smiling, see what they were doing? Or had the statue just become a famous rock? Had the meaning been utterly stripped from it? pieta

“Shush,” murmured the keepers of the cathedrals to the over-excited mobs. “No flash.” “No flash.” But would they come if they couldn’t take pictures at all? “This is a holy site.” But the people seemed at a loss even with these few restrictions. Were they able to see any more without a camera?

Oh, come on, says the touring photographer with the i-Phone to his cheek. When the student came to these same churches on his Grand Tour, didn’t he try, and fail, to describe what he’d seen—to remember it, to talk about it, sometimes to sketch it? Doesn’t the camera lens work better than that? So what if the result is just a copy—mind you, a nearly perfect copy, cameras have become so sophisticated, so easy to use—does it matter?

How utterly opposite to the “slow art” movement, where—like the slow food movement, also a product of the Italian imagination—time is to be taken. To look. To eat. To absorb the beauty. But perhaps that’s not even relevant in the midst of the crowds swarming the Italian hill towns. Crammed shoulder to shoulder, there really isn’t room or time to stop and consider.

Nevertheless, the originals are parts of stories. Even a simple portrait has a place in a narrative. Context is never incidental, not even to the angels, who are sometimes merely punctuation or decoration. In these churches, in some of these palaces and even in some of what have become museums, context is everything. The digital copy has inevitably been taken out of context. The perspective is all wrong.

I’ve been talking about my own short Italian tour and the contemporary need to make copies of art. But what about museums where the picture is not part of a larger context? What about the times it is its own context? What about, for example, the Mona Lisa? The image is simply not the same as the picture. It’s a copy. It may be an excellent one, but it’s still a copy. Brush strokes. Perspective. Color. Just not quite the same, it seems to me. Still, the crowds come with their cameras.

And I can only stop in bewilderment. Of course, the copy is not the same as the original. People are standing around the original, taking pictures of it. They’re not gathered around a perfect printed copy of the picture. It’s the original they want to copy, if not to see.

But what does it mean for art and human culture, if the pictures we see are only copies, if we never look at the original except through a lens?

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Does it take imagination to be a Christian?

Gil Galloway as a young man in the 1960s (the only picture I could find)

Gil Galloway as a young man in the 1960s (the only picture I could find)

I recently spent three weeks in Italy. I’d planned to write about it, I even have a post ready to go. But yesterday, a friend of mine died and his leaving meant that my world lost one more of its pivots, which always makes me feel a little more displaced. I decided a post about Gil Galloway was more important for the moment than the one about Italy.

Besides, Gil loved to travel. One of my earliest memories of him was when he commented about the people he’d met in the South Pacific – that it was so strange to think of them there, as we are here, walking around, living their lives, and none of us knowing anything of the other. Gil had a kid’s curiosity, a religious man’s sense of wonder. He never lost his astonishment about air travel, even though he flew to one foreign clime or another most years of his long life.

Gil was the resident expert about things technological—audiovisual stuff, films, computers, and later video at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. He was profoundly Christian. He was also unfailingly kind, gentle and responsible towards all of us, including two odd freelancers, myself and Wes Adams. We’d both been raised Lutheran, and neither of us quite believed any of it. Probably I did a little more than Wes.

We were, however, sincere in our belief that Gil and his colleagues were right, as well as Christian, in their aims. They wrote, “We have heard of a global church ministering to famine victims, the hungry, homeless urban poor; desperate farmers and displaced workers; unemployed youth and single mothers; refugees fleeing war and political repression; victims of natural disasters; little children and the aged; the diseased, distressed and dying.” (Theology of Mission Statement, General Board of Global Ministries, October 1986).

Their vision was ours.

Wes was in his seventies; I was in my forties. One night during his 79th year, a few days before he planned to place his partner of nearly fifty years in a nursing home, he fell asleep with a martini and a lit cigarette. Gil was his executor; I was the beneficiary of his enormous slide collection. We went together a few days after the fire to retrieve the slides and to find his and his partner’s signed statement that they would like, at their deaths, to be cremated. For two hours, we searched together through the detritus of our friend’s life. It’s the kind of job you learn from, and that you never forget.

I found dozens of address books that Wes and Clive had kept, books chock full of people, but almost all of them had already died. Wes and Clive, in those late years, were very much alone.

Wes died in the hospital shortly after the fire. Gil was there but he kept the experience to himself. Clive, overcome by smoke, was in a coma for five days before the end. Gil only knew Clive casually, almost not at all. But he faithfully went to the hospital every day, and sat with the poor man who had already lost much of his mind and memory to Alzheimers, and just narrowly escaped having to try and understand why his dearest friend Wes would put him away in an institution. Gil did the Christian thing, the human thing. I don’t think anyone else had thought of it. I didn’t.

Understandably, I will forever associate Gil with Wes.

One day, a few months after his death but before the weather permitted us to scatter Wes’s ashes on his rose garden on Fire Island, Gil and I were in his office remarking on the oddness of the box on his window sill that contained Wes’s ashes. Stranger, by the way, than the world’s multitudes of people we would never know.

I was surprised when Gil asked me why I thought Wes hadn’t been a believer. I had no ready explanation. Gil knew we were both gay, I’m sure, but it probably would never have occurred to him that that might be part of the reason. He had no judgments to make. We were his friends and co-workers, and not people he would ever have discriminated against. So I hemmed and hawed, thinking about the extraordinary life Wes had lived – loving music and the arts, dancing, photographing, film making. Perhaps, I thought, he couldn’t figure out how to accommodate Christianity in the midst of all that richness.

I think, said Gil, that he just didn’t have the imagination.

That answer took my breath away. It still does.

It didn’t make me think better of my disbelief then any more than it does now. It did make me think about Christianity in a new way, about artists, about myself. I think Gil would have been pleased to hear about my experiences of the Italian hill towns and their cathedrals and palaces filled with great art, almost all of it Christian, all of it crackling with imagination.

I’m going to miss knowing Gil is there.

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Orange butterflies dancing in my garden

1280px-Agraulis_vanillae_butterfly_from_above

All summer orange butterflies have danced around my garden. They weren’t Monarchs. Everyone hopes for those, but they didn’t have the black patterned etchings of the Monarch. Nor did they fly like Monarchs. Monarchs fly in a more leisurely manner. They own an inner stillness. Well, maybe not quite, but something like that.

My orange butterflies flitted and fluttered. They stopped only on occasion, and then for moments at a time. They looked like fritillaries, but everything I read assured me that fritillaries shouldn’t be here.

It’s true, of course, that we live in a time of drought, and anything as unusual as three or four orange butterflies a day, could be attributed to climate change. But to my credit, I never bought that. There was something too magical about the whole thing. I love the color orange. I’d painted the interior of my house orange. Orange roses grow everywhere.

If you sit outside every day in sunny California, you begin to learn things. You get used to the angry hiss of mocking birds troubled by crows. You watch doves courting around you, and catch an occasional glimpse of a family of quail on their way from one yard to the next. And, you begin to notice that orange butterflies dance mostly around the passion flowers that cover a backyard trellis. They love the elegantly shaped white flowers and the green fruit that eventually (ah, a clue?) turns orange.

passion4passion5

It took no great intellect to figure out that the butterflies loved the vine. It took rather longer to find the article on Wikipedia. They’re gulf fritillaries (not true fritillaries) – or passion butterflies. They come from the South: from Argentina, Central America, and the southern states. Their caterpillars eat only passion flowers. They lay their eggs there; their caterpillar matures there; they hatch again there. They’ve only come to the San Francisco Bay Area because of passion flowers.

I felt like one of those people who just discovered a rare rose, or a heretofore unknown animal.

It’s a warm, uncomfortable summer for most of the plants I know. But not the passion flower and not the butterflies that adore it.

And that, I think, is more than enough to think about while we wait for rain.

passion1

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