In the (imaginary) movie version of my new novel, What’s Left, who would you cast as Cassia’s great-grandmother Dida and her sister Athina?
What’s your favorite museum?
I’ve often joked (or was it boasted?) that we have the best stained glass windows in town. And not just at this time of year. Actually, there’s something basic in the Quaker practice of having clear windows, whether the view opens to the city jail next door or a busy highway or a placid burial ground – we’re not isolating ourselves from reality when we worship.
Sitting on the clerk’s bench one morning one May, I found myself looking out at a Monet. Well, the spring green for three-quarters of the hour fit the tones he used, until it turned metallic in the last quarter-hour when the sunlight turned harsh. Most weeks after that, I tried to identify which painter the view brought to mind – a sequence of Corot, Diebenkorn, Mitchell, Twombly, Klimt, Pollack, even the Zen painting of six persimmons (ours, however, had about twice that amount of fruit), and maybe a bit of Chagall or Hopper. (What was I saying about our Meeting not being blue-collar? Here I am, expecting most Dover Friends to know most of these artists!) Occasionally, even a Kaufmann, as Dick and Jane’s heads appeared in the lower corner while they walked up the ramp to the door. Sometimes the dogwood tree presented a flat image; other times it had holes, opening to the depth behind it; eventually, come winter, it was only sketches in front of a more distant landscape, and etchings, rather than paintings, came to mind. Expecting the Monet to return the next May, it didn’t, for whatever combination of reasons, although there was one week when it was adorned with pale stars – its flowers.
Not that any of this is essentially profound, other than as a recognition of the play of light – just as we encounter various presentations of Light within the room and ourselves through the hour. But I do consider ways our perceptions and expressions differ from the earliest Friends who sat in the room. These artists, for one thing, came after them, except for the 12th century persimmons (and those were off in China, anyway); the now familiar language from science or psychology, too, to say nothing of sports jargon and even military expressions. Did those Friends ever have a bagpiper playing at the edge of the yard, or some equivalent to our sirens on the street or music from a neighboring church? How did they see the world, in ways that we don’t? Somehow, all kinds of differing eras come together when we, too, sit together. So just how do we see each other through all of these seasons and ages?
This piece originally appeared in Types and Shadows, the newsletter of the Fellowship of Quaker Artists.
One late October afternoon, after most of the foliage had fallen, Randy Kezar and I simultaneously looked up from our pathway and beheld a large red maple fully aflame in sunlight as we strolled through the burial ground behind our Quaker meetinghouse. It was the embodiment of the single detail that says everything, the flash of perfection; this individual tree expressed the season as much as all of the previous color change and shifting light we had savored in the previous weeks. “I suppose if we were Japanese, we’d sit down and write a haiku on the spot, in celebration,” he said. Later, I took up the challenge and came up with a few lines I hope come close:
Somehow each New England autumn
comes down to boughs in a graveyard
– a common of stone and bone –
But my provocation and observations kept ranging wider, invoking a calendar not just of the place across a year but also the epochs that fill what went from a boneyard and burial ground to a Victorian cemetery to the present, as well.
The poems that resulted have one foot in Portsmouth and Dover, New Hampshire, and another in Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island, where I quote from the 1664 will of Alice Shotten Cowland and some of the activities of her son-in-law, Robert Hodgson – sometimes spelled Hodson, as well as Hutchin. (I detail what is known of their lives in my genealogy blog, The Orphan George Chronicles.) She was part of the early dissent against Puritan authority, first with Samuel Gorton and then as one of the first Quakers in the New World. I love Robert’s memorial minute, which calls him “an ancient traveler in the Truth.” He arrived in America on the historic voyage of the tiny Woodhouse, causing turmoil in Manhattan and Long Island before heading on to Boston. As far as I can determine, he was no relation to my line, no matter how much many have tried to find the link.
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To see the old meetinghouse at China, Maine, as it’s been turned into a Friends Camp arts studio (a messy one, at that) is a pointed symbol of the tensions many of us encounter as we attempt to live out our faith – and not just on the cultural front. (For the record, I am, after all, a published poet and novelist, a professional journalist, an avid contradancer, gallery-goer, foreign film buff, occasional violinist and harmony singer, and a lover of opera and classical music – all of which can raise eyebrows in various spiritual circles, and most of which would have been forbidden in traditional Quaker discipline – all this even before we turn to the struggles of the workplace, families, neighbors, or politics. Call me a snob, if you will.) The fact remains that the Society of Friends today is filled with many artists pursuing every imaginable medium. Dover Meeting is not alone in its range of talent.
A while back, I spoke of practice as something that’s ongoing and never finished, in contrast, say, to a performance or even a rehearsal. Practice as something done more for its own exploration and pursuit of a discipline than for any finished product. Practice as being part of a bigger encounter: the practice of prayer, practice of poetry, practicing musical scales, play practice, football practice, even medical practice. Something done with care, and if freedom follows in critical situations, as we often hear in interviews after a Patriots’ game, then all the better. Weeding and composting, I suppose, are part of the practice of gardening, apart from any harvest.
When I think about qualities that mark Quaker artists, I would tentatively suggest: placing the ongoing work ahead of themselves; “cool” rather than “hot”; a sense of experience and discovery rather than make-believe or escape; honesty rather than pretense; wonder rather than irony; humility rather than egotism or arrogance; candor rather than flamboyance; a preference for simplicity over complexity; directness rather than confusion; economy rather than extravagance; calmness rather than shrillness; curiosity and listening rather than dogma or bombast.
We might also turn the old Quaker views toward a critique of today’s cult of celebrities (almost universally entertainment/professional sports figures) and their exorbitant incomes – a situation that I believe accompanies a lessening of power within our communities. To that we could add the ways the arts are often used as a secular religion to sanctify public occasions. As for the Oscars?
But maybe that’s just another part of our unfolding spiritual awareness.
The attraction to powerful animals is universal, a response to the mystery of who we are, as humans, as well. To perceive and honor their presence – in the wild, especially – places us within an ecological harmony and health.
But what characteristics essentially define animal life, as distinct from plants? The reliance on oxygen, rather than carbon dioxide, for one, and self-locomotion, for another. At our core existence, each of us may proclaim: “I breathe; therefore, I am.” Thought and emotion come only later. To inhale, moreover, sparks an associative leap – from air to spirit, with its dimensions of inspiration, literally, “breathing in.” Or God, breathing into the muddy nostrils of the first human in Eden.
In general, the animals in these poems move through places where I’ve lived or visited repeatedly – sometimes surfacing through Native stories, sometimes as chance encounters, sometimes by evidence they’ve left behind. (Once, while handling a what I thought was a large, striated rock on a friend’s fireplace mantel, I was told it was a mastodon tooth he’d found on a mountain many years earlier.) Who will regard these creatures intently and not marvel at their distinct intelligence and grace? (Let me confess some others defy any admiration I can muster; who has heard wondrous tales of garden slugs, for instance?)
Bears and whales – giants of the forest and ocean – appear early in one sequence of my poems, along with the sense of awe they instill. In her book, Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore, Nancy Lord argues, based on her own neighbors, “The bear is like us yet is not us. Perhaps the bear is our connection back to something lost and still treasured, another way of knowing. The bear is nature and culture, together.” The whale, on the other hand, reminds us of deep mysteries we may never penetrate and places we cannot venture unassisted.
We cross over from a commonplace understanding of animal – “pertaining to the physical rather than the spiritual nature of man; carnal; sensual; animal appetites” – and move instead into meetings in which the other creatures sometimes enlighten humans. Here, then, nature fits both the heart and fundamental qualities of each sentient mobile organism. Observe their movement closely, and periods of play and even unrestrained exuberance, as well as caring, become evident. The word nature itself arises in the concept of “giving birth” or “being born,” and easily extends to the working of natural law as well.
We will recognize that animal nature is always complex, and always holds more to discover – around and within us.
Barb Knowles of the blog saneteachers has nominated me for a Real Neat Blog award, and I thank her for the nod. If you’re not yet familiar with her site, let me tell you that anyone who knows what an Oxford comma is ranks high in my book — especially after all of those years as a journalist when I couldn’t use them on my paying job, contrary to my own standards. Here, though, things are different.
Allow me to confess, though, I’m of mixed mind when it comes to these awards. On one hand, WordPress (especially) is filled with marvelous bloggers who deserve wider recognition. On the other hand, I’ve found that trying to nominate others can be, well, embarrassing when you find they’ve already received that award somewhere in their past, even before coming up with fresh questions.
A while back I resolved to pass on these things, but then the temptation of participating can be fun. And then there’s that matter of time itself, which on this end will soon involve some major home and garden projects. Alas.
So here I am, looking at the seven questions, which I’ll tackle. But for now, I’ll wait before nominating others or coming up with seven new questions for them. Unless, of course, you’d like me to nominate you (go ahead, be bold and ask). After all, if you’re dropping by the Barn, you’re already cool — in all due humility. Any volunteers?
If you were alone on a deserted island with only one book, which would it be?
Make it the Bible. Not for the reasons most folks would assume — like what God’s trying to tell us. Rather, there’s plenty to chew on here about just being human, pro and con. And Wycliffe and Tyndale (those courageous early translators) do shape our English language, more than Shakespeare, actually. Your followup question would be which translation to pack, and there I’m stumped — I use many, each one adding nuances to the close-to-the-grain sources. By the way, are we to assume it’s a long stay on that island?
What is your favorite color and why?
Blue. Intense electric blue, the shade befitting Aquarius, the color of the clearest sky. Or its cousin, cobalt, the call of the North Atlantic on a clear day a few miles from where I live.
I like favorites, so what is your favorite song?
Since you didn’t ask about symphonies or sonatas or operas or chamber works, I’ll look at song as something that’s sung — in a form other than the traditional A-A-B-A musical form plus verses. (Bet you weren’t expecting that response!)
As a baritone in a choir, I’d put Sicut cervus, a Palestrina motet from the Renaissance, up there, along with a fuguing-tune anthem, Euroclydon, by the Colonial American William Billings.
Now you have me wondering about having the whole choir on that desert island. The plot thickens.
If you could make a memory, what would it be?
Our first grandkid. Leading to my learning to change a diaper. (I jumped in as a stepfather, later in the game.)
If you could join a TV show (present or past) and be a new character on that show, which one would you choose?
Mozart and the Jungle could use a third conductor. Maybe a sane counterpoint, mentor for Rudolfo? Or maybe just to send the older one back to Cuba?
What’s your ringtone?
Ringtone? Tracfones have them? Mine’s whatever I inherited back when.
Where were you born?