(Day 2: a pilgrimage of the spirit)

Auguste Rodin said:

True artists are almost the only men who do their work for pleasure.

My first thought was that this is because historically only men of a certain social standing could do their work for pleasure. The rest of us have had to earn a living. So it surprised me to read that Rodin came for a working-class family.

And it surprised me that I read this quote and reacted automatically from a defensive, and angry stance. It seems I have a habit of being less than generous in my consideration before responding.

And I thought I’d given up drama.

Rodin’s John the Baptist. Photo By Maarten from Netherlands – derivation of Musée d’Orsay 10, CC BY 2.0

Dear Di,

It seems I need to slow down. Doctor’s orders. But that is what this long walk of the spirit is about, though, isn’t it?

Last night E. and I celebrated Sankthans (St. John’s Day) with friends at their cabin on the beach. I don’t know if you remember meeting H. and her wife?

After dinner, H. pushed a wheelbarrow full of pies and fruit and wine from the cabin to the edge of the water, where local farmers had lit a bonfire.  But she’d forgotten to put a cork in the wine bottle.  We rolled with it, though – I had a thermos with tea.

I love the smell of a bonfire. The sunset was beautiful, the company soothing, and the heifers curious. Though maybe a bit skeptical.

I find it sad that the summer has just begun and the days are already getting shorter.

E. and I spent the majority of today in the garden. I had to transfer the tomato plants from the greenhouse to their own individual pots, they’ve grown so tall.

When I told a colleague that I’d set up the greenhouses, she said she imagined I had read up in detail on everything to do with gardening. And I see why she’d say that. The odd thing is – I haven’t. I am truly going at it with a beginner’s mind: I put some seeds in the dirt and watered them, and now I have cilantro for the next few months. The strawberry plants have white flowers and funny, green-freckled strawberry-promises. There are wild vines from the sweet potato plants that I have no idea what to do with, but I am excited to see what happens. I’m quite prepared that it may all go to hell.

I’m silently and happily ignoring everyone’s advice. I did however accept a kale plant from H. It seems she planted her bed too tightly.

Running the same old route today, I tried to see it for the first time. It wasn’t difficult. The canopies of the trees have become so lush that the trail is darker than it was just a few weeks ago. The lilypads are budding with little yellow fists everywhere. I was careful to keep an eye out for snakes.

To the artist there is never anything ugly in nature.

I wondered what you made of this quote from Rodin? I don’t know how he was defining “nature”. And I wonder how I define it. This virus is a part of nature. And we are seeing in the news are aspects of human behavior that are undeniably human nature, undeniably ugly.

And then I’m not sure if Rodin was setting out to define an artist by how they see the world, or to describe how an artist sees the world. The cynic in me wonders what he might have been excusing by virtue of “art”. Artists excusing ugly behavior on the basis of their identity as artists is something I still can’t accept. I want to strip all artists of a sense of entitlement and have them focus on obligation.

Maybe I am over-thinking things, and maybe that is not the best way to begin a spiritual journey?

Today – and you cannot hold me to this – I’m thinking there is a wisdom in suspending the act of judging: beautiful/ugly. But that same wisdom would necessarily extend to all judgments: true artist/ …what is the opposite of an artist, anyway?

My students invariably define an artist as someone who says they’re an artist. I, also invariably, point out the meaninglessness of such a statement.

But maybe – just maybe – it is really a kind of koan?

And back to the quote which I began with: maybe Rodin meant that only the people who find a way to do their work for pleasure were able to become true artists?



Another pilgrimage from home – again, with the guide Amy Gigi Alexander
And again, with differing time zones and schedules among the group, I begin a day and a half late. But it seems appropriate this time. We were scheduled to set off from Canterbury to Rome with the turning of the sun – on the 21st of June. But here were my life is rooted, today is Sankthans. In a couple of hours E. and I will head to the beach to be with friends around the midsummer bonfire.

I will be sharing some of my notes here again, but no details of the actual route or prompts, since this is Amy’s livelihood. If anything you read in my last “travel log” or in this one inspires you, I hope you will consider joining her on her next trek.

A note to Di, as we begin this together/apart.

I’m sitting on the deck in a ridiculously large sun hat. Leonard is lying in the shade chewing on dried fish, and E. is beating stones into place with a rubber mallot and providing a rhythm for my thoughts. I don’t know if you remember much of the house, but from the deck I can hear cars passing by on the other side of the holly hedge – but the birds seem to be everywhere, and happy. I suppose it’s always just a matter of where we turn our attention. 

I’ve taken my debit cards and credit cards out of my wallet today. Time to rein myself in after all this retail therapy. My last big purchase was a cobalt blue bird bath. After 4 and a half years in this house, I am finally venturing into the garden. Maybe it is an aspect of ageing – not looking ahead as much as looking down? While it could be just the zeitgeist, this pandemic-inspired gardening so many are doing now, I believe I’ve travelled so much over the years without a real anchor that it’s quite an adventure now to dig in here: in this suburban plot between the nursing home and the railroad, just down the road from the lake. I’m beginning to feel it is safe to rest in one place for a while – to give up shiny distractions.

Oh, the sharp smell on my hands from the tomato plants! Something of a shiny distraction, perhaps? But I also find myself remember rolling close to the earth as a kid. All the smells and sensations – the itching! – disconnected from the memories I don’t want to summon – give me just the earth, please: just the impressions of the unintentional earth.

We talked about children yesterday, and how we never stop worrying. I looked it up. It was Elisabeth Stone who said that having a child was deciding to have your heart walking around outside of your body. With a piece of my heart in London and a piece in Kabul, I think it is about time I learn to hold tight to joys of those wandering bits, and let go of the worries.  It’s not like my worring does them any good either. I would love it if somewhere along this pilgrimage I became more comfortable with prayer. 

The EKG yesterday was fine. The pain is “just” stress. The prescription the doctor gave me was to go for a run, sleep well afterward. No restrictions, he said. So I think this is a good place to begin something renewed. 

Every year I have my students write a manifesto of sorts: their definition of art. Usually I use it to teach fallacies like circular reasoning, but it is always interesting to have them take it out again at the end of the year to see if there ideas have changed after studying history for 9 months. It is my turn now to reassess. Not only what it is, but how it fits into my life. 

Every morning for the past 3 years I have taken time to consider right view, right intention, etc.: including right livelihood. I’ve come to believe that what I do for a livelihood is not the same thing as what I do for a living. And since I hold that art is mimises or a representation of an individual experience of life, my art is rightfully so much more than my livelihood. 

E. has stopped pounding the stones and wants to get in a run before we head to the beach. 

Thinking of you out on the farm, so far from Italy and so far from here. I miss you. Glad we are on this road now together.