(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.

St-John-the-Baptist-Preaching
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. 

 

“A little resistance ensures a lot of progress.” – Richard writes to me. He suggests that I dig holes with straight lines, sharp corners – so the roots don’t curve in on themselves.


So much has happened since you wrote to me. There are little fires burning everywhere. I don’t think any of us were made to take in all this hurt. I feel the edge of apathy tempting me like a daemon hovering off the edge of a cliff, while beasts and bleeding bodies are rushing toward me in a nightmare. Well, not toward me, but toward us all. I am coincidental.

Are all individuals coincidental?

What can I do but sit on the ground where I am, and breathe? I am irrelevant in the bigger picture of things. And yet integral to all of it.

I am not on the front lines of anything, as you say. I’m not tending to the ill, not protesting in the streets of my homeland. I don’t speak for the suffering, or the dead.

There has to be a way to accept the fact of one’s own helplessness- or uselessness -and not give into likegyldighet. I’m drawn toward the word in my second language because the unfamiliarity seems to put the word’s meaning in relief. The literal translation of the word: the same-validity. Two equally legitimate realities. Facts. It is not a matter of “alternate facts”, but conflicting facts. True phenomenon that coexist necessarily in a state of conflict.

Facts. Disconnected from desires. Desires are interpretations, and there is nothing solid about them.

The fact is we are human. The fact is humans desire. The fact is little good comes from automatic writing.

You are on a font line, Richard. Your day job. It is tending to the vulnerable. It is working towards a kind of justice.


Justice.

I think the chimp studies suggest our craving for justice is an instinct, not a dogma. And I believe have a conflicting instinct to arrange ourselves in hierarchies. But I think those hierarchies should shift continually to be healthy. In class, we use a talking stick. (And I cringe because I know it is appropriated from indigenous people – but renaming it would then still be appropriation, right? And it is a brilliant tool.) Are you familiar with it? The idea is that everyone is heard and that everyone understands they have a voice, and they learn when to use it – and when not to. I’ve learned myself as a teacher that it is often hard to be silent and defer to more relevant voices: to learn to give up wanting control for the sake of control. I’m learning it as a partner in my marriage. And as a parent.

How does a whole culture borne from an arbitrary and brutal division between the privileged and the exploited change? Has any culture ever transitioned into a just society? Or do we simply break down and rearrange the oppression? Last year I kept cutting off my co-teacher when he talked about the “Greeks”. I kept qualifying: free, land-owning men in Greece.

I am still learning about the necessary qualifying when it comes to the facts of my own country of origin: “…The Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave“.

Today I hear this as the truth: The Free and The Brave are and have been two separate populations.

Ah, Democracy.

I used to think that wisdom was knowing the answers. Maybe it is. Maybe wisdom is knowing there are no perfect answers and that suffering is the only truth. Maybe it is why so often I wish I had my childhood faith back – to hand it all over to someone else – all of the responsibility.

But for now, I will sit where I am and breathe. And listen.

I apologize, because I feel that I am talking at you, not with you now.

I am feeling helpless.

Home now from two days in hospital. Once again, my body is out of my control: a mystery. They’ve looked inside my chest, inside my tender throat, under my skull. I’m healthy. My brain is apparently unscarred. So nothing explains my loss for words earlier this week. Unlikely a stroke, but I will be on blood thinners again for another year. I nearly laughed out loud when the neuroligist told me – the irony of my blood being so thick, and my family ties so weak. It’s almost as though my mind/body is desperate to compensate for a lack of kin.

At least it makes for a rich metaphor.

“Acceptance is not indifference. Breathe,” I tell myself. I read your letter and think that “You and E. and M. and I” sounds like a song, or a chant. The kind of sounds that roll through my mind on runs or long walks. It is sound of a small circle of awareness that allows for a kind of peace. It is difficult sometimes to find that in-between circle in this time of social distancing. We are pushed to the edges of our little selves or the great big world, with no middle path.

Soon enough we’ll be able allowed to move through the world without face masks. To smile at strangers. Tomorrow I’m going to order a bottle of Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ll stash it in the basement until you get here – or we get there. And we’ll all four sit together in the garden. We’ll leave the talking stick in the living room a while.

You can talk about cricket, though. You’ll have been back at it by then, and cricket-talk seems appropriate for an evening in the garden.

Much love.
Ren