Art? Why?

Yesterday, while the 12-year-old girls swam in Greensboro’s perfectly clear Lake Caspian, I read on the beach, just me and a few gulls, a pair of kayakers pushing off. An older woman wandered down and waded into the water and said only kids could swim in that water, and then left, too. The girls had swam out and were experimenting with laughing underwater.

Later, we went to Bread and Puppet’s outdoor theater, sprawled in the hot sun. Coming home, the girls swam again, while I eavesdropped on a pleasant conversation between our former pediatrician, his wife, and friends.

I kept thinking, What does art matter, anyway?, all this barefoot and Blundstone-shod performance in the field? What does poetry, fiction, song, mean, anyway? The more I thought, I wondered if my question was wrong, if the answer lay in who was listening, like myself listening to those 12-year-old girls. Maybe art is like that a cappella hymn, voices raised in harmony and confidence, to the variated audience, the shape of the earth, the enormous pine trees, and all that sky, blue and shifting with clouds, over field and forest, highways and water, on and on, and on.

Maybe my question, like a koan, holds the answer.

A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.

– Leonardo da Vinci

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Growing

Some friends have a baby who won’t sleep through a night. A gorgeous, round-cheeked laughing beauty of a baby.

I’ve restrained myself from laughing, from outright teasing: I’ve never heard of a baby who keeps her parents up at night. My first baby, at nine months, woke up every hour for what seemed years, although it may have been only a week or two, or possibly months. I first noted then that this parenting thing might never plateau out and remain static.

My 12-year-old daughter made a new friend yesterday. When I picked her up after work, she was losing mightily and happily at Monopoly, while the girls hatched plans for a sleepover. Later, the three of us biked slightly out of town, abandoning our bikes and walking through the dusk rapidly rising, the girls laughing on swings my daughters used as very little girls. The friend was wearing my daughter’s sweatshirt, and my eyes kept snagging on the turquoise. Truth is, my daughter’s grown so much this past year, I look twice at her often, before I slow down and recognize her as mine.

Stories teach us in ways we can remember… Positive stories shared by women who have had wonderful childbirth experiences are an irreplaceable way to transmit knowledge of a woman’s true capacities in pregnancy and birth.

– Ina May Gaskin

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Little Song

The December my youngest daughter was two, she and I did a sweet little one-day-a-week Waldorf mother and child program. One song she loved had the line Look at the snow falling down….

By the end of that December, snow had fallen every day, and our kitchen window was majorly obstructed. I took to gazing out the window and murmuring Look at the snow falling UP…. just to crack the monotony and mix things up a bit.

Those eternally long afternoons with a two-year-old. On a walk this afternoon, my now 11-year-old looks slightly down at me, so merrily proud she’s taller than me, and certainly no longer chubby-cheeked. Same lovely girl on our familiar dirt road, with sparkling winter all around, but always, eternally, in motion.

All things are in flux; the flux is subject to a unifying measure or rational principle. This principle (logos, the hidden harmony behind all change) binds opposites together in a unified tension, which is like that of a lyre, where a stable harmonious sound emerges from the tension of the opposing forces that arise from the bow bound together by the string.

– Heraclitus

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This Brief Place

These few days, we’re staying in a house without a clock, which makes me realize just how much of my life is sewn together by those magic hands. When my daughters were tiny, and I was mostly home with them, our lives unfolded daily in the ways of very young children: the endless cycle of eating and play and napping. Now, I arrange complicated days, while stringing together long hours of work. But even when I have that time, I am always aware of that clock hammering down: work, work, while I have time.

Now, time-out-of-clock. With the shades pulled down, we slept late this morning. The sky is sleeting, the house warm, the children here and well. We may never return to our empty house.

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings…

M. S. Merwin, “Thanks”

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Birds, Black and White

When you drive down our dirt road hill, the woods give way suddenly to open farm fields along the river valley bottom where, before the rivers were polluted, must have made for amazing swimming. We never swim in the river, but the immense fields and the arching sky are beautiful, and all my many journeys along the brambly edge have yielded treasures – wildflowers I’d never seen or small running streams from the steep hillsides.

This afternoon, crows pecked  at the corn stubble. Something like white cloths fluttered in the light snow, and I realized those graceful swoops of white were seagulls. I’d never seen seagulls there.

If you’d been looking for an omen – and I had, indeed – that mixture of the black birds, with their beaks working where the open ground lay barren and brown, coupled with the downy white of seagulls who tilted upward in the breeze and drifting snow would have sufficed. It was just me and the birds, and the birds would have gone on quite happily without me, serene in a mysterious drama all their own.

…. you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

– Mary Oliver

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Hardwick, Vermont, snowing

 

Family Life

One of the more revealing titles of my recent reading is Akhil Sharma’s Family Life,  a novel hardly of the slick parenting magazine fare I leaf through in that dentist office I so frequently visit these days. A slim, fierce, terrific book.

This morning, reading another book about family life – Margot Livesey’s Mercury  – this line jumps out at me: “The human brain often juxtaposes the sublime and the trivial.”

The line encapsulates the book, true, but also domestic life.

Parenting often seems an endless routine of gathering twisted toddler socks from beneath the kitchen table. When my girls were teeny-tiny, I often muttered to myself during unbroken days a line from Shirley Jackson: “All day long, I go around picking up things.” The tooth-brushing trivial.

And yet, embedded like gems in the midst of sandbox squabbling, there’s marvelous moments: braiding my daughter’s hair, inhaling the familiar, salty scent of her scalp, listening to her stories.

The blue vase on the sideboard was from the Song dynasty, eleventh or early twelfth century. How had it survived nearly eight hundred years when I could barely survive forty? I was in that state between waking and sleeping, neither fully inhabiting my body nor entirely absent, when I heard footsteps. The mattress dipped.

– Margot Livesey, Mercuryfullsizerender