“Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.”*

 

What on earth do I know of love?  What I don’t know has filled journals spanning decades.  Until I stopped because I realized one of many truths: writing about it brought me no closer to it.  Reading about it was marginally more useful, if only to discover all the other blind describing their piece of the elephant.

But yesterday, a voice said, “Write about love“ and I have learned to listen to that voice; when I don’t, I usually end up being very, very sorry.

So…….

“Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.” — Elvis Costello

What is love?

a)  Baby, don’t hurt me. b)  A battlefield.  c)  Like a rock.  d)  All you need.

Before you answer, consider this:  At first blush, English seems like a fairly stupid language.  We have one word for the condition that governs our hearts, sways our days, forges our bonds, breaks us open, makes us stronger.  One tiny four-letter word.  But that is because this one word is like Tolkien’s  The One Ring: it rules the rest by the complexity in its simplicity.  It is inevitable, impossible, invincible…. and indescribable.  Which is why I will try.

One must be very careful when one chooses to write about love.  In general, whatever you focus on tends to increase. And, like any force in the universe, love, when invited in, especially after a long wait on the porch, tends to put its feet up on your furniture, eat all your snacks, make itself comfortable, stay a while.  Love lights you up like radium, widens your field of vision, tears you apart, again.  Dangerous, heady stuff.  Not to be denied.

And from that realization, it can grow like Jack’s beanstalk: overnight.  You learn a lot.  You soften around the edges.  Food tastes better, and you begin thinking again about healthier foods because you want to be alive longer.  The sun feels deliciously warm on your skin, now sun-blocked.  Colors begin to sneak into your all-black wardrobe.  You become lighter than air, hotter than fire, more solid than earth, clearer than water, faster than light.  Or at least you so imagine.

You must.  Be very.  Careful.  And.  Very.  Brave.

You start to see everyone in your life — and I do mean everyone — in a new light.  Some old hurts may heal.  You find yourself feeling softer, more compassionate in general, and more loving toward certain people and situations in particular (a real test!)

More importantly, you also begin being more gentle, compassionate and forgiving with yourself, giving yourself the freedom to let more peek from underneath the protective covering you know so well.  You could argue, in fact, that all love starts — though, obviously, should not stop — with self-love.  For if you do not love yourself, how can you love someone else?  If you do not know your own heart, how can you seek to know that of another?  But when you know your heart, you must be able to pole-vault and/or crash through those barriers that silence the sharing of it, especially the old ones erected for threats – or pains – no longer present.  You can not let your heart be afraid.

So.  Love is not this, OR this, OR this, OR that.  Love is this, AND this, AND this, AND that.  It is all.  It is everything.  While we are limited by our own perspectives and desires, and, thus, do not see the bright and magnificent whole, we are all connected in a grand design.  And we grope and grasp to find that piece that, connected to ours, helps form a larger piece of that design.

And then one day you hear a voice; perhaps it is singing, or laughing, or maybe it just calls a name, a name that’s yours.  Or it’s been calling you all along but you let it be drowned out.  Pay attention, because you didn’t think a voice would call you again. Because you didn’t know you were meant to answer to it until that very moment.   Because it didn’t sound the way you thought it would sound.  But, finally, because it is the voice meant for you, the ears of your ears awake, and the eyes of your eyes are opened.

 

(updated July 10, 2018;)

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The Scotland connection…

(Below written in 1994, transferred to here in 2010: reason explained at the end.  Photos are mine except for first one.) 

Whenever it comes out in conversation that Scotland is the one place I go on a regular basis, I get a look followed by a question disguised as a comment: “Funny, you don’t look Scottish”, noting my Asian features. So, over the years, I have honed an answer that satisfies most. I say that I go for the “Ss”: scenery, salmon, solitude, single malts, silence, short-bread, and serenity. And it’s the truth, though not in its entirety. Few wonder why, aside from the alliteration, all the inedible reasons are reflective and solitary. Now, after my last trip, I can tell the full story.

Once upon a time, “Over the Sea to Skye” started, not with the short ferry-ride – now replaced by a bridge — from Kyle of Lochalsh, but on Platform B, Track Two, two hours east in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands.

A noticeable transformation would take place during that train-ride: shoulders would lose their urban tension and brows their work-plowed furrows. Some attributed this magic to a quality in the light that blended lochs, land, and sky into a soothing palette of purple-grays and greens. Others swore it was in the cathedral-clouds contemplated while tea and scones were served on the gently jiggling bone-china. I believed it came from the increasing stillness — palpable even through the window-glass — beckoning with its gift of unobtrusive and undemanding companionship. Whoever was right and to what degree is unimportant: this is how enchantment always began.

In the year I would turn forty, I was at Inverness Station when I noticed another traveler waiting to commence that journey. She was slender, gloved, and elegantly attired. Her clothes were not only sensible for an outdoor holiday in early May, but also stylish and not particularly Scottish. As she was turned away to read the train-announcement boards, my casual look missed her face, reflecting instead off a cascade of hair the color of the burnished copper-stills at Edradour, my favorite distillery at the time. I felt no disappointment. I already knew extraordinary faces and now avoided them in the same way that a man in a life-raft will yet avoid drinking sea-water. Neither quenches their respective thirsts, and succumbing to either is only a prelude to disaster: ask any survivor. I had no interest in the distraction of even an ordinary face.

I was on my way to Skye for photography, hiking, and a tour of Talisker, whose whiskey Robert Louis Stevenson had described as “ The King o’ drinks”.  While these were not necessarily solitary activities, that was how I had wanted them to be on this trip.  Self-employment provided the ability to vagabond away periodically and so, I looked forward to multiple days of absorbing enough of Scotland to last until the next trip.  A warm bar and a long-finish single malt after a day of hill-walking were my only desires, and those would be in abundance on Skye. It was not a tactical retreat to regroup after the last extraordinary face. (For that, I had reread tales of innocence and betrayal while listening to La Traviata and Billie Holiday.)  It was a strategic move to smother a pervading loneliness by deliberately being alone, to test the theory that an excess of isolation — like piling more blankets on a feverish body — would break its hold.

My idle glance continued downward to her luggage. Next to a paint-box and travel-easel leaning against her crossed legs was a distinctive piece that converted from backpack-to-roller-to-shoulder bag. It was manufactured by a small company in the Colorado Rockies that prided itself on careful craftsmanship and hi-tech design. I knew this because my own, in a different color, was already on board the train. Bemused by the coincidence, I raised my eyes, caught by the movement of her head turning forward again.

The face was anything but dull, as I should have hoped. The individual features were unremarkable – lightly freckled cheeks, the obligatory eyes, nose, mouth – yet as quickly as my eyes completed a confirming survey and returned to the whole, the sum was still greater than the parts. I was becoming entranced by this pleasing phenomenon when a man crossed between us, his swaying sailor’s gait blinking away the spell.

Re-focusing for a last look, I saw that her attention seemed absorbed by something beyond the luggage carts and schoolboys clustered around a vending machine. Reflexively, I followed her sight-line to see……just the blank far-wall.  Swiveling back, curious, I was stunned to recognize in her expression something I couldn’t name, yet feared never finding. Propelled as if by an unseen hand, I rose and found myself, moments later, feather-light standing before her.

The eyes that rose to question the intrusion were not blue…. and I was relieved. Blue eyes had once been pheromonic and inescapable: in their thrall, I would forget that the iris was only a cover, like the atmosphere, over both the wonders and dangers beneath the surface. Blue eyes had not guaranteed more marvels than perils or more brilliance and substance in the inner-person. It had taken a succession of disappointments to inoculate myself against their draw.

These eyes, speckled with shimmering disturbances like the wakes of small boats, were light-gray. I did not — in fact, could not — look away. And as they drew me in, I felt the same sensation that had enveloped me earlier that week standing at Glenfinnan by Loch

Shiel.

Barely past sunrise, I had scanned a landscape without another human being visible yet felt their presence, constant and steady, like the stiff wind hunching low the sparse vegetation. In that glen, with its vista of amphitheater hills sloping down to the water’s surface, Bonnie Prince Charles had waited one August morning in 1745 for the Highland Clans to answer his summons. They came, too few to seed a rebellion, too many to avoid the tears, but just enough for the hope of an independent Scotland to be despair deferred. It was a place where beauty was inter-woven with sorrow for the deaths to come at Culloden the following April.  I also knew, then, that she had to be Scottish: she had Glenfinnan eyes.

Without a thought to the consequences — without any thinking – I blurted a line from a movie I had never seen but which now, improbably, emerged from my unconscious as being the only thing to say:   “The man you are not waiting for does exist.” and held my breath.

I had flung off my load of blankets and run, naked, into the unknown.

————–

We never made it to Skye.

We missed that train, the one after it, and the one after that.

By the third day we had stopped checking schedules. Or pretending we cared.  The decision was effortless, like our connection: we both understood that staying with our respective original plans meant shortchanging them and ourselves. Going then or later didn’t matter: in our state of grace, Time was not a river taking away unrealized experiences: Time felt like a pool into which we could dip our hands and have all we needed.

We chose the obvious: an extended “intermission” at a self-catering cottage we found, after a few days of searching, on the shores of Loch Lochy for her sabbatical. The place had all that mattered: a desk with water-views for me and a large shed with skylights set up as a studio for her. It was the right size for two people who wanted to be together.  From there as a base, we could reach even as far as Mallaig and a boat-ride over to Knoydart for hiking.

Chekhov wrote that people who are happy don’t notice whether it’s Summer or Winter. While it’s true that we didn’t care about the condition of the furniture or the water-pressure of the shower, we celebrated how the early cold that year banished the swarms of Summer midges. It meant that we could sit outside late into the evening as sunset in that latitude was well past 10 p.m. in August.

Stop. 

Close your eyes and take a count to ten to recollect a “best day” of your life.  

I wager that, whatever the activities or people conjured up, what made it qualify is that you would change nothing about that day.   Close your eyes again and imagine having that “best day of your life” feeling every day.   

Now imagine also, in an instant, every day following it be its opposite.  

It happened shortly after the daily sun-shower by which, we joked, the village’s clocks –and our post-lunch routine — could be set.  I would read on the couch – and invariably surrender to sleep – and she would go to the studio for a few hours.  We respected each other’s need to attend to our creative sides, though her results were more evident than mine: a sketch, a small watercolor.  (My measure were crossed out words and/or crumpled sheets: there isn’t much difference between writing and procrastinating-from-writing, particularly poetry.)

This day, her back-and-forth between the living area and the kitchen, with the attendant clinking of kitchen utensils and rasping of drawer-slides, had kept me from dozing off completely. I may have mumbled a complaint in half-sleep, because she made a detour: I know that I didn’t dream the weight of her hand on my right-shoulder for balance as she leaned over.  Or, more lastingly, the tickle of her breath on my ear whispering: “Sorry, sweetie, just a couple more things for tonight. Go back to sleep. I love you.” I had been pestering her to show me the watercolor – the subject a surprise – she was finishing for my birthday in a couple of weeks, and she had finally agreed to give me a preview that evening.

I woke to the insistent call of a horn, a sound incorporated into a dream of Roland at the Pass in Roncesvalles.   Getting up, going outside, and spotting, in the distance, the top of the truck from which it came, took only moments. It was just visible at the last curve and rise of the single-track road on which our grass and gravel driveway fronted. I yelled in the direction of the studio that I was going to have a look, but didn’t get – or expect – an answer: she usually wore headphones while painting, a habit from city-living and neighbors who didn’t share her musical tastes.

As I ran, shouting, the horn stopped and I saw the driver step out of the right side, wave his arms like a man doing jumping-jacks, point to something out of sight in front of the truck and disappear toward it.  I remember the unevenness of the gravel through the soles of my sneakers, but not what I was thinking. Approaching, slightly breathless from that hundred-plus yard run, I saw one of our rented Raleigh bikes and felt the nausea at the same time.

Even before reaching her, I knew by the driver’s babbling that it was too late: there was too much red on the road, and too much stillness. Reliving those next minutes, hours and days is a return dive into a world of numbness and blurred images.

The inquest was, mercifully, brief, as was the subsequent trial: though the curve was old, the road was wet and the lorry-driver new and “high”. It was surmised that the weight and sway of the two wine-bottles in the string-bag hanging on the bicycle’s handlebars had unbalanced it as she swerved to avoid the oncoming — and speeding — truck. As she skidded on the loose stones, it was just Fate that both had turned in the same direction.  And that wearing a helmet was not our habit there.  Wearing gloves – the mid-November Highland weather had finally turned wintry – probably didn’t help her grip on the bicycle’s handles.

I thought I’d care about the verdict, but all the fury was gone by that point, along with every other feeling.  I kept the bicycle’s basket in the basement of my house in Philadelphia until her red had faded enough to blend with the peonies she once had painted on its sides. I measured my recovery by how often I checked, and I somnambulated through the next two years as the the line “… the thing strongly seized has turned to dust / and darkness takes my heart..” from a Conrad Aiken poem became an unwelcomed earworm.

Last year, returning to a beach near Gairloch, I placed the basket in a pyre and watched its sparks and embers dance Skye-ward and toward the stars, then waited for the ashes to wash West with the tide.

The watercolor, I finally framed and hung, the rainbow colors of the hand-loomed silk scarf  I had given her having passed from partly-filled promises to becoming a testament for those that had been.  Sometimes, as I rush pass it on the way out the door and catch my reflection on the glass, I am, once again, on a train to Inverness Station.

image

For Helen, I had held my breath for seven months, two weeks, and four days.

October 19, 1994


 

Tibetan monks spend months painstakingly placing each grain of sand in its predestined place to create their dazzling Mandalas, a tribute to and lesson about patience, beauty, and impermanence.

The years (1992-1994) it took me to select and re-select the words for the account above made it both my personal Mandala and an act of faithfulness to and meditation on the memory of a time and happiness that was too perfect to last.  The process and the time spent were therapeutic and cathartic.  Or, as Michael Cunningham put it in “The Hours”, his novel – and novel “take” – on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”:

“It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and (one) is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later to realize that it was happiness… There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more.  Now (one) knows: That was the moment, right then.”

“Facts”, I once wrote in a poem, are “….fish with hooks already in their mouths…”  Writing this served – unwittingly and unexpectedly – as a study on the timelessness and power of emotional memory, my own naïveté about its effect, and the unintended consequences of personal exploration via story-telling.  My fish all swam toward the same truths: unexpected love encountered, lost, and mourned.

Some drink to drown them, but my sorrows (unlike me) were great swimmers.  What had  started as a straightforward travel account with a Scottish setting, was hijacked by what was really on my mind (and heart) at the time.  Eventually, I recognized that this was actually a gift and gave it free rein.

My great love for Scotland, grown from a college friendship with Andy Turnbull and countless trips over decades, formed an inexplicable soul-level connection to the pained, the beautiful Highlands, and that love was being returned by it in this form: as the setting – the comforting, the familiar, the immutable landscape – through which to deal with a loss that took place an ocean away from there, on domestic shores.

Thus, every photo, word, and sentiment about Scotland and its history and landscape is factual and true, as are the scarf, the watercolor, my long-ago love for the red-haired artist, and my then-broken heart…. but no one die, though the loss felt like a death.   (Though it doesn’t really need saying, the death of a character is a literary device, NOT a sign/wish or actually wanting them dead!  Quite the contrary, I hope she is alive and happy because that’s what you want for someone – anyone – once loved.   I was the fool: the passion and sureness about our love, shaken by her fears, was overwhelmed by my fear of loss, ultimately causing the loss.  A good lesson learned at great cost.  It’s why it took years for that fire to ember into that quote from “The Hours”.  

This Yehuda Amichai poem (link to its place in my personal anthology of love poetry) best describes it’s legacy:

Once A Great Love

Once a great love cut my life in two.
The first part goes on twisting
at some other place like a snake cut in two.

The passing years have calmed me
and brought healing to my heart and rest to my eyes.

And I’m like someone standing in the Judean desert, looking at a sign:
‘Sea Level’
He cannot see the sea, but he knows.

Thus I remember your face everywhere
at your ‘face Level.’

I am transferring the story to this blog, as the fire of December last that destroyed  has made me want to find safe, non-physical spaces for those items that survived it.

April 5, 2011

Posted in Edradour, Gairloch, Glenfinnan, Loch Shiel, Loch Tay, Love, Pascal, Rashomon, Skye, The Hours, The Scarf, The Scotland Connection, women | Leave a comment

Poem to (a)Muse

I am so excited and happy that a confluence of different streams has finally led to completing this post that originated,  years ago with a Yo-Yo Ma performance. Experiencing his entrancement and virtuosity with the cello reminded me of why it is my favorite string instrument.  Listening to it in the Bach cello suites on the home-bound leg of my daily commute reinforced the appreciation of its emotional range and power.  (The outbound leg is usually Brazilian beats to get ready for work’s pace…)  Lastly, while the visual for a poem reflecting and connecting the female figure and the cello had been present for some time, the most important and critical piece – a breathing Muse!-  JUST appeared to inspire and coalesce the parts.

The cello is, by far, the sexiest and the most sensual – aurally and visually – of the string instruments.   As it has so many almost-human voices – wise, playful, soothing, seductive, meditative, mournful – it would be my choice if I were to be re-incarnated as a musical instrument.

A cello can invoke a State funeral, your grandfather imparting his version of the Wisdom of the Ages… or Marlene Dietrich 53CCB6B4-8A98-498A-8C04-B2E5DEA3A129
across a cabaret table, her smoky gaze promising more than a man (or woman) could dream (or handle!).

It can also transform a classic from one musical genre into something entirely unexpected and also beautiful, as in this arrangement for eight (8) cellos of Queen’s (!) Somebody to Love :

Somebody to love for cellos

or Bicycle Race;  

Or sound unexpected in the hands of a virtuoso, like these Brazilian pieces with Yo-Yo Ma.  (No video available.)

1 x 0 (Um A Zero)

Salvador

Alma Brasileira

When a cello speaks, first you close your eyes and then you listen. When a woman connubiates* with a cello, you keep your eyes open, you thank God, and then you listen…1985 woman with celllo

Combine a cello with a piano and the effect of the interplay’s tempo can be allegro enough to make me clean house at triple speed…..or so lento that I’ll head to a hammock, as even the clouds will gather to listen. Here’s a brief example with Lynn Harrell (cello) and Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano):

Romance (1890) – Rachmaninoff

_______________________________
*a new word! And like Justice Steward defining “pornography” (“I know it when I see it”), you have your own definition of connubiate now that you’ve reached the end of this post, don’t you?

So, my own homage to the instrument the puzzle piece for its completion.  (Grrr: the last three lines of the first strophe are supposed to indent, each a step leading downward and closer to the first line of the second, but somehow it won’t format that way!)

 

Like A Cello.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

                  To a shining C.

We’ll meet
through words
you read:
brushing your hair,
drinking cold coffee,
when the screen
was open
to my page,
and you were tired
of reading,
of wishing,
of having
no one…

no
one
standing
you
before
a mirror,
no hand
swan-ning
yours
above your head,
no arm encircling
skin-to-skin, your rising
falling breath (a gentle bellows)
the way  you  hold a  cello.  I would
warm my hands, attend to the seen
and unseen scratches, use a perfect
ear to hum you to the right pitch,
and bow a smile from every tear and
tune re-tune.. and play, again and
again, the notes that chase all
fears… if you were my                                                                                                             cello                                                                                                                                                                     .

————————————————-

 

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(Almost) Russian Connection…

Decades ago, I met a woman at a bookstore in Philadelphia, to whom I was instantly attracted.   However, the budding coupe de amour was dashed when she told me she was engaged to be married.  I had forgotten about this “account” until I found it while purging paper files this weekend.   Since Russia is so much on our minds, I decided to share it.

Unlike my usual reaction – embarrassment and amusement – at poems of that time, I was still pleased at how this worked and how the lines from Mayakovsky’s poem were woven in.  Don’t misunderstand me: it’s still a small, not-even-pebble-shattering poem, more a mise-en-bouche than main course (or even appetizer!).  But it pleases me, and if you set your expectations on the low side, you might enjoy it.  I did!

————

Luba B.

 The italic lines in the first verse are from the poem Oblako v Shtanakh (The Cloud in Trousers) by Vladimir Mayakovsky, translated from the Russian.  “Gorko! Gorko!” Is a traditional Russian wedding toast urging the Bride and groom to kiss, thus making sweet the bitter in life (gorko).  “White nights” is the name for the very short hours of darkness during late June in St. Petersburg.

You swept in abruptly Continue reading

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Parental Legacy

B&W Father in lab

February 15, 2018

My father would have been one hundred and three years old yesterday, had he not died of a heart-attack a foggy Halloween night seventeen years ago in the emergency room of a small hospital in southern New Jersey. As it was, by reaching eighty-four he had more than exceeded the actuarial tables for a life begun in the middle of World War I as the pampered youngest of fourteen children of a former officer in China’s Imperial Army. An alumnus of both China’s top science school, Tsing Hua University in Beijing, and its elite secondary school, Nankai High School (which produced both Zhou En-lai and the recent Premier, Wen Zhiabao), my father became an expert in vegetable oil refining and one of the Chinese expatriates who developed the soybean industry in Brazil.

I try to imagine what kind of a centenarian he would have been: bed-ridden or active, muted or alert, paralyzed by a stroke (his worse fear), incoherent from dementia (my worse fear), or just a slower version of the father I had always known. At eighty, he had gone para-sailing at a beach resort in Thailand. The weekend before his death, he was still the designated driver on an outing to New York City with his circle of friends. The trajectory of these extra years could have gone either way. I think about this because, were he alive, I would want him able to answer the questions I now know to ask. Channeling Cheney’s Alice-In-Wonderlandesque’s words, I didn’t know then what I didn’t know, but now I know what I don’t know…

Top-most on the list would be the events that made the death of my mother, his wife of forty-one years when she had died nine years earlier than him, such an angry one. The metastised melanoma that shriveled her body to skin and bones within six months of diagnosis was easier to take than her bitter denunciations of him. Heard like an endless audio-loop during her last few weeks of life, they served to diminish my respect for both of them without increasing my knowledge about either. Sitting bed-side holding her hand during her last weeks, I cringed at the accusations she made, yet I could not leave, being both curious and a dutiful Chinese son. Her anger and focus robbed us of the conversations that would have made for a better closure for our own, oftentimes head-butting, relationship. I took my father’s forbearance and lack of response to the verbal pounding as natural under the circumstances: a person on their death-bed is allowed liberties accorded at no other time. I never imagined, as I have to come to discover, that I knew even less about my father than I thought.

A parent’s death removes the opportunity to clarify life-moments thought to be significant, if only because they survived into long-term memory. As fragments, their true meaning is speculative, the narrative broken in too many places. Yet, I carry them like a 19th-century furniture salesman’s sample-case: a stock of miniatures of the real thing for sharing with therapists and friends…

Here, a six year-old me, mom meinterrogated about a neighbor’s milk money missing from their porch, and brow-beaten into a false confession.

There, a frightened seven year-old rushed to spend the night at the same neighbor’s house across the street, because Mah-Mah was suddenly in bed for two days and a doctor had been summoned and he could see the lights on and Pah-Pah strobing past through the vertical window slats.  (My later speculation is that she had had a miscarriage.)

Next, a twelve year old me wanting to go to the airport and see Pah-Pah off on a trip and having him say “No need to come to the airport: go play with Michael. I’ll be back in two weeks”…. and not seeing him again for two years and in another continent.  And there again, almost fourteen, in that strange land, the midnight hour and angry voices behind the bedroom door and then Pah-Pah emerging, dark and wordless, to sit in the wooden landing outside the back stairs and look at the night-sky for what seemed like hours…

My quest has always been to understand their motivation, the intentions and the rationale informing their actions. And yet, before the “why”, one must have the complete “what”. And therein is the seed for so much that has grown weed-like in my life: neither of my parents were good gardeners in that regard because, aside from the usual challenges of the multiple roles of normal adulthood – spouse, parent, worker – theirs carried a “difficulty multiplier”, like certain Olympic events. They were strangers – twice – in strange lands, Brazil and the United States. And that made their own up-bringing a useless blue-print for raising me, their only child.

I vowed to be different, to provide both stability and open communication with any child of mine. I took as role models the warm families around me – the Zamost clan and the Cohns in New Jersey, the Kundes and others in Brazil – and how they shared and communicated love.  And when Julia was little, creating community with the families of her classmates from pre-school on, until they dispersed from St. Peter’s.

That’s not how I wanted it to be with Julia, my daughter, my “heart’s needle” (to steal from W.D. Snodgrass’s poem of the same name). I wanted her to know who I was, before being beyond able to answer questions. However harsh her judgement of my actions or the results, I wanted it to be based on good data, not speculation. I wanted her to understand her father for the most selfish of reasons: that however bungled and clumsily I may have played the role at times, the love driving the intentions was pure, fierce, and unconditional. It’s why the line from Othello’s last speech has so much resonance with me: “Speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate, or set down aught with malice”.   My objective is not redemption or even forgivenesses: exposition and clarification would have been sufficient.

But now, as I am in twilight and find no way to open the subject except by a frontal assault that might result in a Pyrrhic victory, the rest of that line looms clearer and clearer: “Then must you speak of one who loved, not wisely, but too well.”

 

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Some favorites from The Barnes collection

What can you say about a place that has 181 (!) Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos among its holdings, all of them unlabeled (!) and hung in an idiosyncratic manner reflecting a personal and unique philosophy about art? Volumes! And art critics have.

The relocation of the collection of the Barnes Foundation from his original home in Merion, Pa. to a millimeter-accurate reconstruction of its interior within a larger, $100 MM modern structure on Philadelphia’s “museum quarter-mile” was controversial in the extreme.  Like every other Philadelphian, I have an opinion, but that’s not the the subject of this post.

I am one of those who has benefited from the move:  I became a member at a level that allows entrance without prior appointment.  Given that visitors over the past decades had tight capacity-controls and required reservations far in advance, this is a profound change in accessibility. It’s the only way to be able – finally! – to get to know the collection even a little bit.  (There are over 4,000 items, but that’s including every hinge, key, lock and miscellaneous artifact that caught Dr. Barnes’ fancy.)

My most memorable visit was in the month of my 40th birthday, almost a quarter-century ago, when a woman (an artist herself) with whom I fell in love deeply and madly made me look at Bonnards differently… but that’s another story  for (and of) another time and life.  My most recent visit – yesterday – also served as the beginning of a personal project: to “capture” my personal favorites.

Woman Seated on a Red Sofa – William Glackens   (Never confused with his “Nude on a Red Sofa“, for obvious reasons.)

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My knowledge of Glackens is limited and mostly gleaned from reading about his relationship with Dr. Barnes. (They were friends and he was one of Barnes’ advisors/agents about what artists to collect.)   Knowing little about him allows the work to speak for itself without the baggage of the maker’s reputation.  (It’s the same reason I like movies starring little-known actors.)

It’s the body language and expression on the woman’s face that distinguishes it for me.  She’s absorbed by something yet self-contained and at ease.   She doesn’t appear to be waiting for someone, yet has ceded most of the couch, placing herself at one end.  And in that positioning and in that empty space beside her is her story.  And that makes it a painting I can look at again and again.

Moorish Woman (The Raised Knee) – Henri Matisse, 1922-1923

Moorish Woman (Bended Knee)

Of Matisse’s many paintings of odalisques, this one is absolutely my favorite because the subject, a subjugated woman stares at the artist with a pose and look that is the opposite of her state.   Her expression is a cypher, her body’s nakedness and brazen angles a study in secure acceptance of the self: she owns herself regardless of her legal status.  She hides nothing, is ashamed of nothing: her dignity is intact.  And Matisse captures that.

Two Figures On a Path –  Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1906

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Aside from the relative size of the figures and their gender, we know nothing else about them: their ages, their conversation, their lives.  And so, this mother and daughter – my conjecture (and probably the most universal one) – stand-in for all the mothers and daughters who have taken a woodsy walk together on a fine Spring or Summer day and bonded over everything from a  shared silence to spoken secrets.  And that warms my heart.

Luncheon (Le Dejeneur) – Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875

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How charming his expression, how swaddled she is in heavy linen, how delicious the bouillabaisse in the tureen must have been, how proper the whole scene….

This is the lunch at the beginning – the rosy, innocent beginning – that bookends with Degas’ Le Interieur at the other, unpredictable end.  The link will take you to the Degas and its story… or one version of it.  Once you’ve read that, you’ll understand.

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Chuva (Rain) – A fado by Mariza

Having added the capability to embed videos into my blog, I feel like a kid with a new toy.

A “fado” is a type of Portuguese folk song that has at its center a longing for something/someone gone and remembered.  It’s melancholic though not necessarily sad.  You don’t have to have an “old soul” or know loss to appreciate the genre, though it helps.  A fado rekindles memories and emotions while also being a vehicle for dispersing their force in a safe way, like a lightning rod.

Of the present day fado singers, none is as talented or well-known as Mariza.  Here she is performing Chuva (Rain).  The lyrics, in translation (not mine), follow.

Rain

The ordinary things in life
don’t leave with a longing for what’s passed,
Only the memories that hurt
Or make us smile do

There are people that remain in our story
in the story of our life
and others whose names
we barely care to hear again

There are emotions that give life
to the longing that I bring with me
Emotions that I had by your side
and I lost a little ago

There are days that leave traces in our souls
and in our lives,
and the day you left me,
I can not forget:

The rain wet my
cold and tired face
And all the streets in that city,
I had already passed by

Ah … my crying of a lost girl
shouted to the city that
the fire of love in the rain
just now died

The rain listened to my secret
and shared it with the city
And now, rain taps on my windows
bringing the longing back.

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My first “Coup de foudre”

The French have a term for everything worth noting about life and love.  Especially love.  (It’s beyond my ken how and when they gained this special status with that universal emotion.  Or how deserved it truly is.  But that’s a thesis topic for someone with more time and curiosity.  And a trust-fund since they will never be employable!)  But I digress.

Cleaning up my music library on iTunes this morning, I listened to a song I hadn’t played in years and remembered that it was my first coup de foudre, which is translated literally as “a lightning strike” or “thunderbolt”, with the figurative meaning of “love at first experience”.  It is the encounter with something/someone whose effect is like an electric current coursing through and awakening every nerve to its tip.

If you breathe and can feel, I guarantee that you have had a coup de foudre: a piece of music, a song, a book, a movie, a poem, an objet d’art, a place, and, of course, a person (which would be a “coup de coeur“, the specific “coup de foudre” for love-at-first- sight).  One can’t prepare for (or against) a coup de foudre.  It can be hoped, prayed, and wished for, but that’s just as effective as eating a plateful of oysters in hopes that a lover will materialize.  (If that worked, oysters would have become extinct a long time ago…)

A coup de foudre is a miracle, an affirmation that, somehow, the sum of our experiences  has been rewarded by something that speaks to our whole being and enhances it.  It’s a transfigurative experience, one that will not age or diminish however frequent or sporadic the future encounters with its agent.  Visceral and disturbing in the moment of occurrence, they become centering and enriching once past it.  A coup de foudre, then, is a reminder that even as our lives are embering (thank you Deidra, for the timely image in your poem) with each day passed, our hearts and soul have not.

My earliest coup de foudre is an Irish folk song written in 1884 that entered my life one afternoon, a couple of years shy of fifty years ago, when I was a twelve-year old sitting at the piano avoiding another repetition of a Mozart* sonata.   I was in my seventh year of lessons (which I didn’t mind), and practicing two hours a day (which I did).  As the only twelve year-old Chinese boy playing recitals in a little town in the boonies of my state in the south of Brazil, I was good in the way a talking-dog doesn’t have to recite Shakespeare to be applauded.

For a break from Mozart that day, I picked up a song-book of old English standards that my mother had brought from Hong Kong and began leafing through it, here and there desultorily trying out the first few bars of a song.  I knew a few words in English – my father was already in the US but I didn’t know whether he would be returning or we would join him – but not enough to read and understand anything.  However, one of the few words I could recognize was “love” – I was in deeply in first-love (another story) – and I saw it in the title of a song.

I started sight-reading it, focusing on the fingering more than on the melody the first time throughAnd then a second, third, fourth… I don’t know how many times, concentrating less and less on the mechanics, as my fingers memorized the note sequences.  Technically, it’s not a difficult song and soon I entered that state of being performer and audience as I watched my hands be at-once mine and not-mine.  And then, suddenly, at the umpteenth time at the refrain, it took me over in a way a piece of music had never done before.

Perhaps if I hadn’t been twelve. Or in love.  Or didn’t know what I didn’t know about love, longing, and loss.  But that’s how coups de foudre work.

I don’t remember if it was the same day or soon after, but I translated the lyrics, word-by-word using my mother’s English- Portuguese dictionary.  There is a dim memory of singing it – badly, I’m certain, as I didn’t speak English yet – when my mother was out.

Sometime later I played it for Clarisse at her house on her piano, but I never told her how it had impacted me the first time.

As I have aged, “Love’s Old Sweet Song” has gained in meaning throughout my life, no more so than today, as love is now “... just a song at twilight”.

(A piece of trivia unearthed is that the song appears in Joyce’s Ulyssess as being a song Molly Bloom would sing.)

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The lyrics follow a video of a performance by Patricia Hammond (mezzo-soprano) and Michael Brough (piano).  She has a beautiful voice so it’s a shame that it’s not well miked.

The lyrics:

Love’s Old Sweet Song

Music by J.L. Molloy;
words by G. Clifton Bingham

Once in the dear dead days beyond recall,
When on the world the mists began to fall,
Out of the dreams that rose in happy throng
Low to our hearts Love sang an old sweet song;
And in the dusk where fell the firelight gleam,
Softly it wove itself into our dream.

Just a song a twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go,
Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes Love’s old song,
comes Love’s old sweet song.

Even today we hear Love’s song of yore,
Deep in our hearts it dwells forevermore.
Footsteps may falter, weary grow the way,
Still we can hear it at the close of day.
So till the end, when life’s dim shadows fall,
Love will be found the sweetest song of all.

Just a song a twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go,
Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes Love’s old song,
comes Love’s old sweet song.

Audio only, a better-quality recording by Morris and Bouckom:

12 Love’s Old Sweet Song

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* Something by Mozart would become a coup de foudre late in high-school in New Jersey, when I saw the film “Elvira Madigan”, which used his Piano Concerto #21, K. 467 as the theme.  This video below uses the footage wherein the theme enters.  Neither the video or audio portions do justice to the film or the music.

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Fired Works – for HL

There is a brilliant, sad and powerful poem by Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet who should have been a Nobel-winner, with these lines:

Once a great love cut my life in two.
The first part goes on twisting
at some other place like a snake cut in two.

I was reminded of it a few days ago when I came across the skeleton of a poem I never completed at the time of the event, over twenty years ago.  The pain was too fresh and too deep to control and shape, desperate though I was for the catharsis of externalizing it into a poem. Finding the draft fragments re-animated the memory and feelings, with the Time that has passed quenching and taming them enough to finish the work. Whether it has tamed them too much and dulled the result, I leave to you to decide.

Fired Works

One evening last week,
I saw you cross 17th Street
as my taxi waited
(two from the front)
for the light to change.

My heart burst,
not with the elegance
of the sky-filling blooms
we watched from my roof-top
on the Fourth of July,
but with the chaos
of fire-cracker snakes
thrashing the side-walk
on Chinese New Year.

Afterwards,
just shreds, red shreds
stuck underfoot,
little bits tracked
to
every
corner
of
the        city.

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