It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness. With sadness there is something to rub against, a wound to tend with lotion and cloth. When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up, something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats. It doesn’t need you to hold it down. It doesn’t need anything. Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing, and disappears when it wants to. You are happy either way. Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house and now live over a quarry of noise and dust cannot make you unhappy. Everything has a life of its own, it too could wake up filled with possibilities of coffee cake and ripe peaches, and love even the floor which needs to be swept, the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough to contain so much happiness, you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you into everything you touch. You are not responsible. You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit, for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it, and in that way, be known.
From Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.
This poem speaks to me. Sorrow is something heavy you carry in your body. It’s personal. It belongs to you. But happiness is too large to carry in your body. It comes from without and carries you along with it. It’s not personal. It doesn’t belong to you. It blows “you” away and leaves you with this “belongs to everyone” feeling. The whole world is included in happiness. It just shines everywhere, through you and to everything that surrounds you. Everything glows in that golden light, even the soiled linens and scratched records, as Nye writes.
It’s like the painting by Pierre Bonnard above. Happiness shines through every line–from the lax layered leaves at the bottom, the elegantly twisted trunk, the bursts of red and yellow at the center, the far-faint mountain in the background, to the snowy blossoms bursting heavenward.
There’s no reason for the happiness I feel when I look at this painting. It just is.
What is it about this painting by Ernie Barnes that so uplifts and inspires? That ripples with joy? That feels like poetry in motion? The elongated bodies express a joyful, hopeful longing to rise up. To leave this earth and its troubles behind as they leap into the air, their faces upward gazing as the ball falls, triumphantly, through the hoop. Their feet barely graze the ground. Their arms and legs and elbows a choreography of dance movements, jazz rhythms, and soul music. No blues here. It’s all Praise God and Amen!
You can see all that in Barnes’ “Sugar Shack” as well. Imagine what joy he must have felt while painting these! It makes me happy just thinking about it. Barnes knows something about the joy and challenge of movement. He was a talented athlete playing professional football, as well as a talented artist, before his death in 2009.
That “poetry in motion,” that joy in movement, can be found in found in great dancers everywhere. I found the following video in celebrated writer Zadie Smith’s article about what dance can teach writers. “When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating.”
She compares the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Kelly’s is firmly grounded, prosaic, “commonsense” dancing, showing what everyday, ordinary bodies in their youth and strength can aspire to. Astaire’s dancing, by contrast, is not aspirational but inspirational. His dancing, she writes, is “transcendent . . . . for no bodies move like Astaire, no, we only move like him in our dreams.”
The Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard, were another example of that transcendent dancing. Smith writes: “The Nicholas brothers were many, many magnitudes better than anybody else. They were better than anyone has a right or need to be. Fred Astaire called their routine in Stormy Weather the greatest example of cinematic dance he ever saw.” (Be sure to watch to the end when they descend the stairs doing the splits!)
Smith has a keener eye for dance than I have, for she saw Fayard’s dancing as more prosaic: “formal, contained, technically undeniable.” Whereas, “Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back.” For me, both dancers are pure joy and perfection.
“Between propriety and joy,” Smith writes, ” choose joy.” In dance, in art, in writing—in life, I’d add—choose joy. I try to choose joy when I blog. Sharing things that bring me joy.
I’ll leave you with what Smith says is the best writing advice she ever heard—from the dancer Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
In a novel I’m writing I include an origin myth of how the isthmus of Central America was created. It’s fictional but inspired by the Mayan myths I had been reading. My protagonist reads a myth about the heroine for which she was named. The book is full of gorgeous imagery and she describes some of her favorites: The rivers, trees, and flowers flowing out of Malenque’s body, Balanque with the jaguars and monkeys and macaws rising from his. Xite with her flowing hair and fish-like tail looking anxiously over her shoulder as she swims away from the Demon-Bird Dragon. . . . . She wonders if this is where her love of art was born.
So imagine my delight when I discovered the lush collages of Maria Berrio, inspired by her own reading of myths from her native Columbia. In an interview for the Georgia Review she says:
I am deeply influenced by surrealism and magical realism, so some of my favorite classic South American authors are Borges, Neruda, and Márquez. But much of my work has, of late, been influenced by oral traditions, as well as the rituals, customs, and beliefs of South America.
For example, a tale I explored in my 2017 piece Aluna references the creator figure and “Great Mother” of the Kogi people from my native Colombia. . . . .The painting depicts a female version of the mama priest in the moments just after she is brought out of the cave. Her senses are flooded with the intense beauty of the world she is charged with protecting. It is a fragile world, but she accepts her destiny.
Barrio creates her collages from hand-made papers, often with natural motifs, from the global south, such as Nepal, India, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Mexico, and Brazil. A writer from Praxis International Art describes her work this way:
Her careful and laborious assemblage of torn pieces of paper is a way of creating a transcendental space/time where myths and dreams can be told; among them, the story of the all too human yearning to recover the treasures of the lost garden of childhood, which echoes the longing for Paradise Lost.
Myths reveal the great archetypes from which the world’s art and literature and religions are evolved, and therefore from which histories and cultures arise. They can teach us great things about ourselves and this world into which we are embedded.
One of the pleasures of painting is creating something special for loved ones. Both of my grandchildren have a special affection for foxes. This one is for my grandson, which also includes a mink because he mentioned how cute they are, having seen a report on how hundreds had escaped (or been recued) from a mink farm.
These paintings for loved ones don’t always come out as well as I hoped. A landscape of a California vineyard for my brother and sister-in-law did not please me. I mailed it anyway, since it was a Christmas present and “okay,” although not as good as I’d wanted. To make up for that, along with it I mailed them another California rural scene I liked better.
I just hope my grandson doesn’t outgrow this painting too soon. He’s a sweeet kid and loves animals but he just turned 15. I’m hoping he sees the humor in the two critters eyeballing each other. A bit of tension there. The mink is safe enough though. Maybe I could have toned down the flowers? But who’s to say young male teens can’t appreciate flowers as much as the rest of us?
My granddaughter will outgrow the paintings I made for her soon enough too. I like thinking these will be passed along to my great-grandchildren someday. Or some grandma in a thrift shop or at a garage sale will pick them up for a couple of bucks to pass along to their own grands.
It’s been awhile. I traded in my pen for my paintbrush these last few weeks. The new novel I’ve been writing is off with beta readers who will give me the feedback I need to continue revising. In the meantime, I’ve been wanting a seascape to go in a special place in our home to complement the model of the USS Constitution that my husband spent three years creating.
I saw an online paint-along of a seascape from a photo reference I liked, and decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, the paint-along format didn’t work for me. I’ve never been someone to draw within the lines. I wasn’t happy with the outcome and turned off the video and, using the photo reference, worked on my own, adding and deleting elements as I went along. It went through several transformations before my husband and I decided it would suffice.
It’s signed and framed and ready to hang. At first I thought this frame was too busy for the painting, but when I tried it with other, plainer, frames, it didn’t look as nice. Besides, I love the frame. The antique look blends well with Old Ironsides.
I haven’t worked a lot in acrylic. Although I’m starting to get the hang of it. Most of what I’ve been doing has been in water color and pastels, or a combination of the two. I just finished another acrylic that I’m pleased with—a birthday present for my grandson. I’ll share that here soon too.
In the meantime, I’m wishing you all a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with friends and loved ones.
It’s about the need to catch every falling cup “with soft hands” and fill it to the brim “with brimless being.”
This happens sometimes when writing poetry. A phrase will swim up from some primal depth, like a gift or some pressing urge—a fuzzy felt-sense of something that wants to be known, and, in the writing, becomes clearer, although not fully plumbed. Thus it returns, as if it has more to teach.
It means different things to me at different times. Sometimes it connotes a deep kindness that reaches out to save things that seem to be lost, fallen, ready to shatter—to hold them gently in our hands, our minds, and cherish everything good about them so much they become full to overflowing.
Other times it seems to suggest catching every moment before it disappears and just holding it gently in our awareness, feeling its fullness to such a degree that the moment stills and becomes its own kind of forever unending.
Doing this when it’s still and quiet is like stepping into a pool and swimming luxuriously through it. Steeping ourselves in every sound, texture, color, scent of that still moment—breathing it all in.
Trying to do so in those harried moments when you’re full of feeling—perhaps stressed, anxious, in a hurry and rushing around—is harder. But even then, the attempt to do so creates its own magic. Even as everything around you is in a rush, the moment slows and softens as the mind merges with its surroundings, savoring its suchness. That moment melts into the next in a never-ending stream. Nothing is lost. All remains full.
Me, you, our lives, each passing moment—We are the cup that must be caught with soft hands and filled to the brim with brimless being. That’s the urgent need.
It’s not surprising I’m drawn to these so-called landscapes by Shara Hughes. They remind me of Matthew Wong’s mysterious mindscapes and Odilon Redon’s poetic paintings, whose work I’ve shared on these pages as well. The real and surreal, the interior and exterior, the symbolic and psychological wrap around and feed each other. You enter places that feel real and dreamlike at the same time. Beautiful and disturbing, fluid and chaotic, lush and luminous.
Her current show “Time Lapsed” at the Kunstmuseum Luzern in Switzerland includes this statement about her work: “These fantasy landscapes satisfy our need for beauty on the one hand, but also arouse a slight uneasiness on the other. The nature depicted seems irrepressible and at times even threatening in its exuberant fullness. Shara Hughes’s landscapes are mood pictures that convey feelings, emotions, or memories.”
Perhaps that’s why they feel familiar, like some otherworldly place I’ve been before—evoking dreams, memories, emotions that wait just below the surface and lure me inward.
Sculptor Nichola Theakston works in bronze and ceramics to capture the spirit of creatures found in her native Wales and in the wilds beyond its borders. “The notion that an individual creature may experience some ‘otherness’ or spiritual dimension beyond our understanding of its instinctive animal behaviours, is the premise behind much of my work,” she tells us on her website.
I discovered her work on a blog I follow at Colossal, and fell in love with the tender and tranquil faces of her primates, the curious and inscrutable felines, the proud and majestic wildlife.
We learn something about ourselves as humans when we see these qualities in the more-than-human world around us. Is it our own spirit we recognize in them? Or a Spirit that enlightens human and non-human alike, that compels us to see ourselves in the Other.
What do you see when you look at faces of our kindred cousins?
The richness of Faith Ringgold’s textured artwork dazzles me. She had been ignore for so long in the artworld, but at the age of 91 she is being celebrated for the truly amazing and influential artist she always was and a lifetime of work to prove it. Much of her earlier work was dark, documenting dark times and political struggle. She was ever an activist and continues to be. But so much of her work expresses a joyful celebration of life and art and story-telling. You can see more of her art and read about her life here.
The article features Bruegal’s paintings and W. H. Auden’s poetry. It’s about how human suffering and complacency go hand-in-hand. How it’s all, perhaps, a matter of perspective. How distant are we from the suffering: Is the war taking place in our city or on a distance continent? Are we watching its horrors on TV, or have we moved on to sipping wine with friends on the patio?
Here’s the poem by Auden that expounds on the painting above by Brueghal.
Musee des Beaux Arts W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The article is also a master course in reading poetry and art. It explains how lines five and 8 refer to the miraculous birth of Christ that the aged are waiting for. This glorious occasion is juxtaposed in lines 5 and 6 with the skating children oblivious to the coming slaughter by Herod’s hand.
The Brueghal painting depicting it is pictured below
The following five lines in Auden’s poem refer to another Bruegal painting where dogs chase and play with each other while soldiers slaughter a village.
Horror is hard to sustain. It dulls, it grows weary, it becomes a drudgery. The mind drifts. Life goes on. The sun continues to rise. We need its warmth and comfort. The trill of the songbird still thrills us. We need this too.
Yet all of our justified condemnation and horror at Putin’s brutal bombing of innocent civilians should not allow us to forget the 400,000 Vietnamese whose lives were lost when Agent Orange was sprayed over their villages and forests, destroying all of it. For what? Are we more innocent than Putin?
It’s a matter of perspective. That was then, this is now. A year or two or three from now, will the horror of this war fade? It will. Unless this all breaks out into WWIII as some fear.
Below is Auden’s poem on the day after Hitler invaded Poland. It’s a long poem so I’ve included only the 1st, 5th, and last two stanzas, the 8th and 9th. You can read the whole poem at this link.
September 1, 1939
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.
Faces along the bar Cling to their average day: The lights must never go out, The music must always play, All the conventions conspire To make this fort assume The furniture of home; Lest we should see where we are, Lost in a haunted wood, Children afraid of the night Who have never been happy or good.
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” another poet wrote. We will. We have no choice. The plowing, the fishing, the wine and the laughter must go on.
Isn’t that our fervent wish for the people of Ukraine, that they regain this normalcy? Even Vietnam has rebounded. Forgiven us.
Life must go on, we say from our safe, complacent distance. As it does, with or without us. Despite everything there’s a new birth taking place every second of every day.
The joy and sorrow, beauty and brutality of the human condition are woven into one seamless tapestry, glorious on one side and a hopeless tangle of knots on the other. All a matter of perspective, which side we are looking at in the moment.
Auden once said that the only true value of poetry and art is in the truth-telling that disenchants and disintoxicates.
Well, that’s one value of truth-telling for sure. But turn it over and the other is the truth-telling that enchants and intoxicates. Both are necessary. Especially in times like these.