I have recently finished a cycle of painting and for the first time there is a theme to the images that were created. I call it “The Journey Home.” I am including some examples here on a separate page (see nav bar at top of this page). I am also putting together a little book with the picture series accompanied by prose and poetry; it will be available on line in a few weeks. Thanks for stopping by.
I hear the honking of the geese flying overhead on the way to warmer climes and the morning now has a crisp pinch in the air that fortells coming frosts.
I have not visited the park often this summer as I have in former years but today I place my chair in view of the dog park. The smaller dogs are preoccupied with scents and the threat posed by passing dogs which they meet with high pitched barks and aggressive stances.
In contrast it is play time for the large dogs. A recent arrival in the shape of a mid-sized black and white terrier has the shepherds, hounds and Great Dane in an uproar. This bi-colored bullet of speed drops into the pack with the subtlety of a firecracker and immediately had the other seven trailing in his wake as he tears in great circles through the field. Long legs scissor rapidly but are no match for the terrier who often looks back tantalizingly before putting on another burst of speed.
The larger dogs periodically drop off one by one, long tongues hanging out, sides panting and pumping. When a dog revives enough to rejoin the race it does not jump into the fray but takes up the last position as the pack speeds by. When the terrier calls a time out the dogs plop down in the cool grass with large smiles and wagging tails.
Then the romping begins and consists of bouncing jumps and hops. At times a dog flops down and invites another to wrestle. Is this where the expression “boundless joy” derived – the leaps and bounds of dogs at play is the personification of joy.
Meanwhile, the air is pierced with the ringing tones of “Little Brown Jug” playing incessantly as a rusting white ice cream truck slowly circles the parking lot. I wonder how appropriate it is to have a song about whiskey as the theme song for a children’s treat. As the truck passes by I check to see if the driver is wearing ear plugs as a precaution against insanity.
A young woman pulling a set of golf clubs briskly walks by and compliments me on my choice of seating and view. Moments later a man eating an ice cream bar asks me if I am drawing to which I reply that I am writing, and he quickly loses interest as writing is not a spectator sport.
Six dogs are sitting in companionable silence in the shade of a tall oak while two sniff the perimeter of the compound when the noon bells of St. Philomene chime. Nearby, the small dogs are sitting up, paws waving, for the small treats tossed by their owners.
In the larger playing field a large, lean black dog plays fetch with her master who flings the ball far down the open field, the dog flying in pursuit, her eyes measuring just where the ball will land and the trajectory of the rebound.
Soon, one by one, the dogs are escorted to waiting cars and trucks, all ready for a long afternoon nap in front of the TV while the family watches large men chase each other up and down the field trying to catch the flying football. Is this the human form of boundless joy?
The proof of the great drought is seen
in the small creek that runs through
the city park where now only smooth
round rocks lay where once
water flowed freely and
ducks floated easily
and fish swam just out of reach
of small boys with large hooks
at the end of the their father’s poles.
All is hard and dry now.
The mica in the river stones
glint in the morning sun
that recently delivered so many days
of hundred degree heat and
birthed baby fires that skittered
across the griddle of the city
and teased the edges of the yellow
ripening fields to bloom into black skies.
This morning is warm with a jacket-shedding
and a thirsty delta breeze that
prowls up the big valley from the south
where the fog lies lazily along coastal shores.
Men and women stride purposefully
down paths as large lawn-mowing tractors
rumble across fields like dinosaurs
patrolling their kingdom and leaving behind
the sweet scent of grass and gasoline.
Dragonflies, big as hummingbirds,
wings spinning like small propellers,
glide in spirals around the couple courting
under the dark tree who laugh and share
exuberant kisses that are heard across the lawn
where maintenance workers in bright orange vests
push wheelbarrows heaped with compost
as this person looks up into the white sun
and remembers rain.
On a dirt road lies a dead beetle.
Three little pairs of legs carefully folded on his belly.
Instead of death’s chaos –neatness and order.
The horror of this sight is mitigated,
the range strictly local, from witchgrass to spearmint.
Sadness is not contagious.
The sky is blue.
For our peace of mind, their death seemingly shallower.
Animals do not pass away, but simply die,
losing – we wish to believe – less of awareness and the world,
leaving – it seems to us – a stage less tragic.
Their humble little souls do not haunt our dreams,
they keep their distance,
know their place.
So here lies the dead beetle on the road,
glistens unlamented when the sun hits.
A glance at him is as good as a thought;
he looks as though nothing important had befallen him.
What’s important is valid supposedly for us.
For just our life, for just our death,
a death that enjoys an extorted primacy.
Seen From Above, Wislawa Szymborska, 1921 –
I stumbled upon this poem the other day and found it quite touching for the modesty of its subject – not many poems are written about the lowly beetle – and because it reminded me of a short essay I wrote a year or two ago on a similar topic. My experience was not seeing a dead beetle but a beetle in the process of dying. (See Archives 2012, August 9)
“animals do not pass away, but simply die.” I like the irony Szymborska uses when she infers that the beetle’s death is so much less in importance than our own. Their death need not be draped in euphemism but baldly declared. The lowly beetle knows its place in the hierarchy of value. Its death is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. In contrast, how important we believe ourselves, how world-changing our own demise.
Yet when “seen from above” does not the same life which animates our hearts, also animate the beetles of the world, and the trees and rocks and birds? Isn’t the one life that connects us all, the one life that is All That Is? Perhaps this hierarchy of life in which we imagine ourselves as the evolutionary edge is, in fact, not a vertical structure but a horizontal configuration that moves from the center outward in all directions at once with no one form having primacy, all being equal and equally loved.
And, if by chance, we fulfill those dire prophecies of Armageddon who can say the world will miss our heavy footsteps and loud quarreling voices. Perhaps the meek will one day inherit the earth.
A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray & Dim
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket:
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-grey’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step – and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third – a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you – I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
This poem would have been a good selection for Memorial Day but I didn’t find it until the other day when perusing a book titled, “A Book of Luminous Things,” an anthology of international poetry edited by Czelsaw Milosz, Nobel Prize winner in Literature. But I think the sentiments of brotherhood expressed also serves for Flag Day.
We don’t really celebrate Flag Day much – ever since the Vietnam War and the days of flag burning I think there has been a confusion between patriotism and nationalism. Love of country, which is patriotic and can be symbolized by a flag, seems to me to be a good thing and one that is bred into our bones – who can forget where they spent their childhood – whether those years were good or bad? Who can ever leave behind what is held within in the word “home,” the emotional landscape of our life.
In Whitmans’ poem we are reminded of the great brotherhood of man whether those ties are felt on the battlefield or around the kitchen table. I, for one, am grateful for this land of ours and the opportunity to live here. As a people we are certainly not perfect and have made, and continue to make, bad choices – but the mountains and lakes, the rivers and valleys, the great vastness of this land and the inherent brotherhood of our people are worth celebrating.
Side Note: I learned yesterday that one of my ink wash paintings, Miles to Go, has been selected by the 9th National Exhibition held at Axis Gallery in Sacramento in August. It is one of 58 pieces chosen from more than 1300 submitted.
Last night a roar like the rumble of a heavy-laden truck broke the stillness of evening and rapidly grew in intensity. The sky came crashing down in short staccato bursts of small hard ice pellets that hopscotched across wet sidewalks. The sudden storm was furious but passed in moments, leaving behind a slowly sinking sun and a faded blue sky stained with blotches of pink and crimson and orange clouds.
Today, within the small world that is the neighborhood park, the dew lays heavy on the grass, muffling the sounds of passing traffic and the strident barking of a dog. The sky is clear of even the thinnest clouds. The gusts of sweet air jostle the trees, their long limbs shudder and their leaves wave back and forth in the morning light.
People walk down streets and around paths, collars turned up, briskly keeping pace with tail-wagging dogs whose noses twitch as squirrels race up and down ancient oaks. A black-jacketed girl with knee-high boots and short shorts struts across the parking lot, high heels clicking and purse swinging. A jogging man takes off his shirt to bare his young brown skin, then sprints off to the track. At the playground children squeal and chase elusive bouncing balls thrown by weary mothers looking forward to afternoon naps.
Two mallards waddle in stately procession across the wide lawn, twin tails swinging in tick-tock fashion, four webbed feet keeping cadence to a goosey rhythm only they can hear. Overhead two dragonflies dart and dance, their biplane wings a circular blur against the sky. From a nearby branch a black crow looks on with interest and caws in reply to the noon bells of St. Philomene’s. Time for lunch.
After several days of heavy rains the sky was clearing, the clouds drifting slowly into high, white masses. The sun shone down peacefully as if grateful for the respite. The air was clear and clean and after many days of silence, the birds were once again singing.
He was a middle-aged man, still slender but showing streaks of gray in his hair. Behind the wall of his brown eyes, a sadness and disappointment shone. He said he had grown up in a single parent family and although they had never gone hungry, there was never any money for the nicer things of life.
He had put himself through college, worked hard, and eventually rose to an executive position within a respected company. He had a devoted wife and two healthy children; a big house with a view, a sports car of his own, a travel trailer for family vacations, electronic gadgets and toys – in fact, all the things he had dreamed of owning as a young man were now his.
He said that when he looked at his life he saw many of his business associates starting their own companies, getting even bigger paychecks and bonuses, receiving recognition from peers in their industry. He wanted to know why he wasn’t lucky like they were. Why wasn’t he happy too?
Lucky. When we feel lucky we feel full, complete. When we feel unlucky, there is something empty inside us that wants to be filled. Some want to fill that hole with money or fame or love or God. If only something ‘out there’ could be obtained and put ‘in here’, all would be well. We would be complete, we would be happy.
This ‘thing’ that we believe we need is always just ahead of us, just a little out of reach, around the next corner, in the next relationship or the next job – and if we just try a little harder, run a little faster, we can get what we need and finally relax and finally be happy.
And when we do get that prize, we do feel better for while – a few hours, a few days, a few months – and then that awful ‘wantingness’ comes back. The happiness we felt with that fulfillment was not because of the ‘thing’ we finally obtained but because, for a while, we had no desires. It was the cessation of desire, not its fulfillment that allowed the joy to be felt. Joy fills all emptiness.
So it is not how many things we have, or their quality. In fact, possession has nothing to do with peace. We are lucky, we feel fulfilled, only when we stop wanting. When we stop wanting, we can recognize how lucky we indeed are. Gratitude for what is, no matter what that is, is the foundation for all joy.
It was not many months later that the man developed cancer which seemed to prove to him that he really was unlucky. But when he left this life he was surrounded by all the people who loved him for his courage and devotion and then he understood.
“I had a dog once
Who liked to fetch,”
I wanted to say,
To the man with the white beard
And the baseball cap
As he flung the ball
High in the air
And the lumbering lab
Barked twice and ran,
Ears high, tail waving.
“I had a dog once,”
I wanted to say
As I remembered
Boulders round a blue lake,
From red bushes,
Deer tracks in new snow,
And Beau running to me
At my call,
Ears high, tail waving.
I broke a six year abstinence last week when I bought a television. I’d like to say it was the hunger for PBS and documentaries that triggered my purchase but honesty demands I tell the truth. I was eager to watch the Red Carpet for the Academy Awards show. Yes, I know they are totally shallow and over-hyped, and the program itself too long and too boring – but I was hungry to see the ‘glossy’ people, who they are with and how they are dressed, definitely a show in themselves.
I did stop short of getting cable and in the days that followed, I investigated regular programming. I am watching this 21st century television with a $5 rabbit ears antenna. I get ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, plus a handful of foreign language and shopping networks, and, most importantly three or four local tv stations. These local stations have accomplished the impossible. They are time machines and have taken me back sixty years. I am now watching the same tv programs I watched as a child on our first, refrigerator-sized television.
For example, I can watch Wagon Train, Bonanza, My Little Margie, Hogan’s Heroes, Perry Mason, Gilligan’s Island, I Married Joan, Ozzie & Harriette, and many other hits of the 50’s and 60’s. Most importantly, on Saturday afternoon I am able to watch Gaby Hayes’ Western Theater. This was my favorite show of childhood. It came on a 4 o’clock, just after I got home from school and just before Howdy Doody and dinnertime.
Gaby’s show featured the grade B westerns of the 30’s and 40’s with stars such as Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Smiley Burnette, Harry Carey, Andy Devine, Sunset Carson, Hoot Gibson, Tim Holt, Lash LaRue, Slim Pickens and Tex Ritter. Of the scores of cowboys featured on the screen there were only a handful of women, foremost among them being Dale Evans.
As I watched Gaby this weekend I realized how important these westerns had been to my upbringing. The westerns, along with my weekly hour in catechism as St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church, had poured the foundation of my ethics and morality. The cowboy movies always showed the good guys and the bad guys, and in case you got confused you could always identify who was who by the color of their hats or shirts. The bad guys invariably wore black hats.
Cowboys were my heroes and for many years I longed to be a boy if only to be able to ride a horse and be a sheriff. In fact, I had a cowboy costume with cowboy boots and hat – not to mention a black Hopalong Cassidy bike with a cap gun holster near the handlebars. My favorite song (to which I knew all the words) was “Don’t Fence Me In.” Here’s a great version by Gene Autry:
What did cowboy movies teach me? I had the certainty that by the end of the story, the good guys would win – after some hard knocks and/or gun fights- and that justice would be served, the bad guys would end up dead or in jail. Goodness always triumphed. Indeed, the westerns were the modern version of the morality plays performed in church courtyards in the Middle Ages. While church and catechism gave me the philosophic and spiritual lenses through which to view the world, the westerns provided me with hands-on, practical, how-to information.
Cowboy movies taught me the need to have courage even through you were surrounded by hostile Indians or bandits; to stand up for what you believed in especially if it involved barb wire fences, squatters or water rights; to sit with your back to the wall and your eye on the saloon door; that women and children were to be protected and respected; that the only thing worse than a coward was a traitor; that truth was more important than winning; that modesty and purity, especially for women, was more important than beauty; that a horse is the best friend you could ever have; and finally, that every trail has an end and if you rode out into the sunset there was a chance for a new beginning. All in all, not a bad list of guidelines for living life.
The black and white innocence and unquestioning righteousness of the cowboy movies gave a lot of security to my world view as a child. These years were the 50’s, the time of the rise of the middle class, suburbs, tv dinners, and highways across the nation. One of these highways eventually led me to the very land where all those westerns were made, California, the sunset at the end of my personal trail.
“The worst thing about death must be the first night.” Jose Ramon Jimenez
Sooner or later something ‘really bad’ happens to us. It might be a debilitating or critical illness or financial catastrophe; it may be the death of a parent or family member. In whatever guise it comes, this life challenge is always shocking because it marks the end of life as we have known it, and the beginning of a new chapter or new path. From that day forward, nothing is ever the same.
Shock! No words come; breathing is difficult; the eyes cannot focus; our rational minds are frozen; our hearts beat like sheets flapping in the wind. This new reality is nowhere more evident or more keenly felt than ‘the first night’ in which this new knowledge, this new reality lies beside us in bed. There is no way out, no escape from what is.
I found the quote above very powerful. If you have lost a loved one, you probably remember that first night alone. But what about the one who has died – how is that first night spent? If the people reporting near death experiences are to be believed, the departed ones are probably very happy and at peace after the turbulence of earthly life. But still …
I wonder. When I think of dying, I feel sad to think I will be leaving behind the beauty of this earth, the blue sky, the scent of rain and flowers, the sight of young babies. It can be fashionable to believe in reincarnation and to say you want to get off the karmic round, be done with humankind and enter nirvana.
I am pretty sure I will be back many more times, not only because I have so much more to learn but I have so much more to let go of. This earth and its beauty grips my heart – or, am I the one who is holding on so tightly to the known? Will I be able to go gently into that good night?
The quote by Jimenez was the inspiration for a wonderful poem by contemporary poet, Billy Collins from his book “Aimless Love.”
The First Night
“Before I opened you, Jimenez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,
But now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set
then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,
a long darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death.
How impossible to write it down.
This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.
The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh -
those and all the other words will cease.
Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me
into paying more attention to the world’s day – moon
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,
and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
These sentinel thorns,
Whose employment it is to guard the rose.”