The Perfect Book

 

You know I like books. This gem – a little antique companion I could carry in my pocket – arrived at cold Christmas and I was transported to a Persian garden. I lay on the floor under the glittering tree and read:

AWAKE! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

Roses, wine, and time suspended – the imagery of romance… Contemplation, celebration, and carpe diem… Old Omar has it all. Words well-known to me in a book that had been loved but not too much, used but not too harshly. The perfect book.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

With me along the strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot –
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne!

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Heal Thyself

 

Dr Gray leaned back in his chair, rubbing his nose meditatively. Then he spoke, eyes still closed so I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or himself. I always get the feeling he’s more of a philosopher than a physician and that in itself makes me feel better. In college we had a Philosopher in Residence. Every now and then I wandered down the hill and up long, narrow, switchback stairs to visit. It was like climbing the Sacred Way to consult the Oracle. At the top was a small, dark landing and a door. That’s all. I drew myself up to knock and the door opened onto a sanctuary. Sun poured in from long windows and stacks of books rose up everywhere like the vapors of Apollo himself.

There are no stacks of books in Dr Gray’s small office, but there are paintings. His wife is an artist, which is how we met. So we talk a lot about her and a lot about art and a little about my physical health. This suits me fine. As he walks me out I realize there is a life-size marble bust of Julius Caesar there in the hallway. He’s sitting on a faux woodgrain laminate desk as if the waiting room were too plebeian for him. Obviously the doctor would see him immediately. He’d wait right here. If it were a smaller sculpture I could imagine someone walked through and said: I’ll just set this down here a minute. But this is Caesar, large as life and ten times as heavy. He demands homage.

Dr Gray sighs. “That belongs to Dr Billons. I think he wants to put it on ebay.” Dr Billons, who I’ve never met, has been brought into the practice as a relief pitcher. I imagine him young and brash and wearing rubber gloves. He’s very clinical, probably diagnoses patients with his eyes open. This is his? Suddenly I don’t want to pull his name off the door. I want him to assess my lymph nodes speaking Latin. I picture him reading Catullus to the matronly receptionist between patients. “I entreat you, my sweet Ipsitilla, my darling, my charmer, bid me to come and rest at noonday with you…”  as she photocopies and files prescriptions for antibiotics and diuretics.

“You want it?” Dr Gray asks. Yes. YES.

No. Well, yes. But no, not really. What I really want is to have it at my doctor’s office. Julius Caesar wearing a bronzed breastplate and set on a chipped laminate desktop amid oil paintings of the doctor’s garden, his boat, his cat even. I want my doctor to know I was once 18 with a ridiculous crush on a colorblind painter and that I cut the tip of my finger off with a paper cutter trying to impress him. I want him to ask how many kids my sister has now and what I’ve been reading. I want to hear the funny story about his vasectomy and to have his home number in case I need it. I want there to be a huge marble bust of a Roman dictator sitting in his office for no particular reason. I want him to be a real live human being and to know that I am.

Isn’t that what we all want?

So I left Dr Gray the way I used to leave the oracle at the top of the stairs; no clear answers but lighter in spirit, with much discussed and more to think about.

Update

 

This is the part where I update my blog. You were wondering when I’d get to it, weren’t you? Wondering if I won the Washington Post’s Peep Show contest, if the Pixie’s ingested any potentially hazardous substances lately, how I felt about Susan Boyle’s performance  on Britain’s Got Talent, if I’m enjoying reading Twilight, if I’ve gotten my stimulus check yet.

Questions one and two will be addressed together because she ate my contest entry. You read that right. She ate my diorama. The little marshmallow artist, Grant Wood, glasses and all. His backside was glued to a tiny hay bale. This did not deter her. He had a small paintbrush in his hand, which I’d made. Amazingly she did not eat that. Probably an oversight. I’m sure she meant to, because she ate everything else. The marshmallow bunnies posing for Mr Wood, also glued down? Eaten. The marshmallowy hay bales – covered in actual hay? Eaten.

Eventually we may have to consult professionals. I’m talking psychiatric help; everyone at the Poison Control hotline knows us already. Last week she bit a light bulb. Let me say that again. Last week. She bit. A light bulb. I was talking to her sister (because I do have other children, honest) and I glanced over to see the Pixie with an odd look on her face. Her cheeks were puffed. “What have you done?” is the question I warily ask several times a day before approaching her, for fear she’s stuck her finger in a socket or caught a venomous snake and is about to bring upon us destruction that I don’t want to touch. So I asked “What have you done?” and crooked my finger at her. She didn’t answer. She looked like Sylvester the cat with that “I tawt I taw a puddy tat” bird in his mouth. An uncomfortable half smile and she slowly held up what she had behind her back. The metal end of a light bulb, jagged and broken.

I tend to go cold and distant at moments like this. We seem to have a lot of them, so that’s probably best. Her sister took her cue from me and became my surgical assistant, wordlessly handing me wet paper towels with which I fished shards of glass from a bloody mouth. Finally I was satisfied she might not die and asked why on earth she would do such a thing. She is five. We should be beyond this. She shrugged. A mouthful of glass is no big deal to her. “I couldn’t get it to open.” She had been turning and turning the screw-in part and it wouldn’t open. So she bit it. To see what was inside. Again: She bit a light bulb. She sees this as an obvious solution to a problem.

Am I doing something wrong?

Magical Realism

 

wind-from-the-sea

 

Last Sunday morning I was pretending to write something of terrible importance here while furtively checking my e-mail. I drank my tea, picked out my password with two fingers of my right hand, and considered going to church. Then I found out about the Andrew Wyeth tribute at the Brandywine River Art Museum. ooooooh…

Not that the Brandywine River Museum normally highlights artists who aren’t Wyeths. This was something special though. Christina’s World was on loan for the weekend from the Museum of Modern Art. It rarely leaves New York City. This is not one of my favorite paintings honestly, but the chance to see such an icon of American art up close and personal in a setting as intimate as the Brandywine made me more than a little excited. I vibrated with it. And, of course, it’s Andrew Wyeth. I am a self-confessed Wyeth-ite. I know. What could be more obvious, right? A serious artist would eschew such rustic realism. This is not the stuff of great art. It’s too provincial. Too acceptable to the masses. But I do consider myself a serious artist and I love Wyeth’s work. It’s realistic, yes. There’s more to it than that though. There’s an element of mystery often that verges on mysticism. Something other-worldly and slightly surreal. Magic. And in Wyeth’s paintings there’s always a story unfolding. You have to look quietly, to listen with your eyes. Someone’s just left the room, there’s a breath taken, a pause…

“It’s a moment that I’m after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment.”

That’s the quote that was next to his Snow Hill. Again, not a favorite of mine but I like the quote. I came across another quote paired with a painting and searched the room for someone with a pen. The man I spotted making notes of his own handed me his pen as if he had some choice in the matter. It was cute. He even tried a little small talk. He’s never been to a gallery with me.

“I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

Although I don’t really prefer winter (At all! It’s cold!) to any other season, I read that and thought: Yes. Exactly. And then I remembered I’d drug four children and a husband along. Not hearing them made me nervous. But there they all were, admiring Christina’s World from a respectable distance, held back by stanchions and rope. The sight made me smile. My nine year-old and I had had a scholarly discussion of that very painting on the drive to the museum. There’s a print of it hanging in the art room at school and so she knew all about it. “Are you going to buy it, Mom?” she had asked. And there she was, reveling in the fact that she was standing within two feet of it. She could tell her teacher and say “My mom decided not to buy it”. She asked a lot of questions. This child has a gift for interrogation. She’s verbally interactive. Her mother frequently is not. But she’d hit my weak spot. I could have gabbed about texture techniques and negative space till they died of boredom. Catching my son’s eye I knew they were close to it. But they were good and as we walked he admired the realism of the water and assorted livestock. The nine year-old kept up the barrage of questions. “Who’s that? What happened to her? Is she naked? How did he get those pumpkins stacked like that? Is that dog asleep? It looks like he used white paint. I thought you said it wasn’t cool to use white paint in watercolor. Is this a watercolor? What’s egg tempera? It looks like white paint…”

sigh

We made our way through, wondering at an elderly man that painted motorcycles at stop lights and at the mastery of his last painting – aptly titled Goodbye. Then we visited his father, NC Wyeth. Left the white on white of the special exhibit gallery, filled with the seeming lightness of watercolor and egg tempera, and entered the dark, barnlike gallery of huge, heavy oils depicting shipwrecks and swordfights. My son stepped in and his eyes grew big. “Wow!” Scenes from Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, Last of the Mohicans, and more surrounded us, including my personal favorite, RL Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The pixie shouted “Is that guy dead?” and patted The Siege of the Round-House, a huge painting of a scene from Kidnapped. All five fingers and a palm. She leaned. Hard. The canvas sagged inward. I was twenty feet away and paralyzed by horror and – I’ll admit – awe. This child of mine has touched an NC Wyeth painting. Completely and totally touched it. Loved it without reservation, left her imprint upon it and made it her own. It’s a sight I hope I never forget. This is the way she lives. Fully. When I say to friends that I fear for the world for her sake, this is what I mean. There’s no moderation in her. She consumes life and everyone in it whole and all I can do is watch in horror and awe. This is the way NC Wyeth lived; The way Andrew Wyeth was raised. Beneath those fine fairy features she is brilliant, wild, genius, and I have to remember to rejoice, if tremblingly, in it.

 wyeth-collage

Quiet

 

I have nothing to say. Sometimes I don’t. There are times when I just want to sit quietly. This doesn’t really carry well in a blog. Often writing in a blog seems to mean not having a filter between your thoughts and expression of them. Or perhaps the blog becomes the filter. The main objective is expression though and, at the moment, I’m expressed out. Instead I’d like to share some of my favorite quiet memories.

 

1-rembrandt-self-portrait-aged-51

Rembrandt: Self-Portrait, aged 51

 

2-bso2

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

 

3-north-sea

 Daybreak on the North Sea

 

4-fair-hill

 Green Fields at Home

 

5-sunday-morning1

Anticipation: Washington, DC

 

Catching Up

 

greatstairhall

 

Last Saturday. My husband runner acquaintance dropped me at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on his way to the marathon expo. With four kids. It only occurred to me after we were inside that this could end in disaster. By then it was too late to turn back. I coaxed them out of their coats and into their best behavior. I hoped.

Passing the map to my bossy eight year old, I was surprised to hear her announce our destination: Fifteenth Century European Art. The Rogier van der Weyden crucifixion had caught her eye. We took an indirect route, annoying our would-be navigator. Through an American Folk exhibition (You may not touch the paintings. Do not touch the paintings. Stop touching the paintings. CUT IT OUT.), Dutch tiles (boring), Persian rugs (more boring), and an elevator ride wherein we treated the attendant to this conversation:

Pixie: This alavalator’s so big I could run circles in it!

Me: When the doors open you must not run.

Pixie: Can I jump?

Me: No.

Pixie: How about hopping?

Me: No.

Pixie: Skipping?

Me: Do you know how to skip?

Pixie: No.

Me: Then you’d better not skip.

Pixie: Ughhhh! What can I do?

At this point the elevator doors opened and she ran. The others followed, but stopped in their tracks and made a collective gasp at the entrance to the sixteenth century Hindu temple. This was what I had wanted to show them. This was how I had secretly, earnestly, hoped they’d react. When I remembered child number three she was climbing a five hundred year old carved pillar. “Get down from there” I hissed. “But I love it!” and she clung tighter when I tried to pry her off. Somehow we managed not to pull the entire thing down and the Ming dynasty reception hall in the next room survived her energetic adoration as well. I know you’re thinking She has other children. Why doesn’t she talk about them?  Because they’re good. Eight year old Bossy Britches was reading the signage out loud for the benefit of all present. When I tried to tell her there were videos in each room that gave the same information and more she cut me off. “You think I can’t read (glance back at the sign) Mad-an-ag-o-pala-swamy? Cause I can. Can you?” Her brother had dropped into a corner to sketch, he was so inspired. And the baby? My wee one, my dumpling? Sucked her thumb happily. I’d given her a swedish fish to be good.

And so we progressed through the Japanese village – complete with temple and ceremonial teahouse, Chinese scholar’s study, rooms full of artifacts and paintings of bamboo… I gave the baby more swedish fish. She was that good. Finally we wound our way back to the elevator. Our would-be navigator whipped out her map again. I distracted her with more architecture – a twelfth century fountain from a French monastery. Really it wasn’t that easy. She can rarely be distracted from a goal. I kept pushing the rest of them in that direction though and she had no choice but to follow. The fountain is a quiet, contemplative space. I fed the baby more candy and we stood quietly and contemplated. The water trickled soothingly, like music.

“I have to pee. NOW.” This is the reason we don’t have a fountain in the house.

When a four year old wearing big girl underpants says that, you run. We ran. All of us. The stroller sqeaked like mad and the pixie spread her arms like wings and pretended to fly, touching everything on her way through European Art. (Yes, Lisa, I said “you’re a peein’ art”.) At the other end of the wing I was faced with my old dilemma of what to do with the boy. I hate leaving him alone in a public place. I know he’s old enough. I know he’ll be fine. But I worry anyway. These are the cutest kids ever born. I’m convinced kidnappers are lurking around every corner, waiting for me to lose track of one. The pixie they’d return, but the others… He dropped back into a corner by the door with his sketchbook and I did the only thing I could do. Pushed the girls through the ladies room door and followed with a squeaky, tractor trailer length, double stroller filled with thirty-four pounds of laughing, sticky child. The girls made it through but the stroller stopped dead. Double doors! The first door caught the wide sleeve of my sweater as it shut and the second lodged itself just behind the front wheel of the stroller. We were stuck. I was stuck. The baby climbed out and went through the half open door to her sisters.

I did eventually get out without too much damage to my (favorite) sweater, the stroller, the doors, my pride, or the Lord’s name. The baby did soon after have a massive sugar-induced meltdown. Unpleasant to see. BUT, we also found the van der Weyden. The painting consists of two panels which make it almost square. The size and spareness make it very powerful. My daughter pronounced it worth the wait and plopped herself down on a bench to take it in fully. Nobly, I resisted the urge to share my love of Early Netherlandish painting. I tried to keep the others occupied and let her discover it herself. If there had been a door to the room though I might have thrown them out and barricaded it so we could discover together. There wasn’t. And keeping little ones occupied often comes down to simply moving. On we went. I was disappointed they were more interested in the elevators than the enormous Calder mobile in the Great Hall. How can you ignore a thirty-four foot long ghost? Rubens’ Prometheus Bound had the right effect however and I didn’t even have to point it out. There was a chorus of distressed noises from the girls and a “WHOA” from the boy, followed by analysis of the particular bird species and a recounting of the story of Prometheus to the further disgust of his sisters. The arms and armor were an instant hit with everyone. All that glittering metal in one place is exciting. Exciting enough that they want to go back. That makes me happy.

I think we’ll leave the little ones home.

Secrets

 

It’s occurred to me that I can’t be completely honest here. That’s not true. I’m completely honest, with the exception of my unnatural compulsion to change the time stamp at the top of each entry. I like the appearance of consistency – although I myself am consistently inconsistent. But the “Secrets” label is more misleading. For crying out loud – my picture’s right there for the world to see! What kind of secrets can I possibly reveal? A few of you know me so well you’d crush your ergonomically designed mice in horror if I let loose any big secrets. You’d fall off your chairs. You’d have apoplectic fits. Okay, maybe not that dramatic. I do have sizable secrets. Some embarrassing, some delicious, some would bore you to tears, but they’re mine.  If I gave them all away I’d have no secrets left. The mystique would be gone. You’d all go off to read postsecret.

Amanda and I had fun reading the postsecret cards displayed at the American Visionary Arts Museum back in August. I picked up a postcard, thinking to out some secret of my own. It’s still sitting here on my desk, waiting. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus seems too lovely to mar with an anonymous admission though. Really, she looks as though she has secrets of her own. Well, yes, she is in fact naked. Yet she covers parts of herself, reluctant to be utterly revealed. Even Venus is unsure of exposing herself completely. I like that. I think it makes her far more interesting.

Like Botticelli’s Venus, I’ll keep my more sensational secrets hidden from public view. Instead I offer the inner dialogue; Me talking to myself. That has to be edited somewhat obviously. Not all my thoughts are fit for polite society. Maybe there’s some value in the anonymity of postsecret after all.