Friday, June 26, 2009

Another Maira Kalman blog

Happy Last Friday of the Month!

Because that means another of Maira Kalman's delicious "episodes" of her blog in the New York Times: "And the Pursuit of Happiness". Today's episode is about Thomas Jefferson, inspired by a visit to Monticello.

I will let her words and pictures speak for themselves. There is a lot to savor.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Some Very Cool Flutes

I'm taking a light-hearted break from "The God Thing" to delight in the story in yesterday's news about the very very old flutes found in a cave in Germany, not far from where the carved female figurine (whose discovery was announced about a month ago) was also found. The flutes, made from bird bones and ivory, are almost as old as the "Venus" figurine--at least 35,000 years.

Maybe this post isn't an absolute break from "The God Thing" since the Venus figurine may well represent a very early "God image" of sorts, mostly likely used in long ago rituals of some kind. Perhaps flute music was part of the rituals, whatever they may have been.

What I love about these discoveries is the tangible evidence, reaching farther and farther back in time, of human creativity and artistic expression. They are reminders to me of just how essential and fundamental such activities are for us as a species. They inspire me to marvel and to wonder, and to count my own creative endeavors as part of this ancient human lineage.

Art and music are not luxuries reserved for times of plenty and the leisure life. They are, quite simply, deeply human endeavors. When we ignore them (or cut them from our schools and from our lives), we do so at our peril. What suffers is our humanity (and probably other species too).

One could certainly argue that these discoveries also underscore the antiquity of "ritual" and of "the religious impulse" of us human beings. I won't quibble with that.

But I would note that an inclination toward ritual and "religion" (I almost hesitate to use that word, since it connotes for us big entities, like the world religions we know best today) is not necessarily the same thing as a "theological impulse".

It is quite possible to have meaningful, even transcendent, ritual and art and music without "God" (by whatever name or designation).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The God Thing, part 1

"I am no longer comfortable using the word 'God'," the speaker said from the pulpit. The speaker in question was the minister of the small town Unitarian Universalist Church that my family attended during most of my childhood.

Although I can't pinpoint the exact date of this remark, made in the context of the minister's Sunday sermon, I would place the day somewhere in the range of 1973 - 1974, years when I was embarked on my own spiritual-religious search (though I'm not so sure I used the word "spiritual" back then).

I was sitting in the congregation with my father, the member of our family most apt to attend church in those days. And I was not pleased.

I was not at all pleased with the minister's remark.

Perhaps he went on in his sermon to discuss the "death of God movement" in theology, or to offer other ways of imagining a meaningful source and power in the universe without using the word "God". If he did, it was lost on me, too subtle for my thinking at that time. All I remember was that one line: "I am no longer comfortable using the word 'God'."

"Well, thanks a heap," I can imagine thinking to myself. "I came here looking for someone to help me understand God. You're no help at all!"

These days I have a lot of sympathy for that statement that bugged me so much thirty-something years ago. Perhaps for different reasons, I find myself largely happy to avoid the G-word altogether. I don't seem to miss it or need it.

And life is just so much simpler that way.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hearts of Paper

"Whatever you do for your mother's birthday party," David said to me early last week, "just be sure to do something that you really enjoy creating."

David knows my foibles and my Achilles' heels. And he knows that an extended family gathering can bring such things into relief as almost nothing else can. His advice was solid.

My mother turned ninety at the end of April, but in order to accommodate multiple schedules, my siblings and I had planned a birthday celebration for last Saturday. And though I had given my mother some small gifts on her actual birthday, I wanted to have something to present to her on Saturday.

I knew I wanted to make something using colored paper, and that it needed to have ninety of something! And, as David suggested, it seemed a good idea to do something that I would enjoy making, rather than taking on some big project that might cause more agony than pleasure. That way, no matter what kind of reception my gift received or how it stacked up against anyone else's gift, I would at least know that I had had fun making it and could forever be glad for the experience.

Toward the middle of last week I kept noticing a springtime fringe of green, heart-shaped leaves--common wood sorrel, I believe--running along the front edge of our garage in cracks in the asphalt of the driveway. I stopped several times to admire the green accent and to look closely at the leaves.
They are most definitely heart-shaped!

Later in the week I peered closely at some lupine blossoms and noticed how they, too, (in profile) look a little like lop-sided hearts--and also in some cases like mittens! Many lupine blossoms are two-toned; some even sport fine stripes!

With the sorrel and the lupine as my inspirations, and with a fresh packet of solid-colored origami paper, I set about cutting free-form heart shapes in multiple sizes, keeping a rough count as I cut. When I had a little more than ninety shapes, I took a large sheet of watercolor paper, folded it in half like a gigantic card, and took a stab at an arrangement of colored hearts on paper.

I worked quite quickly really, mostly trusting my instincts and not bringing a whole lot of thinking to the process. I arrived at a pleasant arrangement and then glued the hearts in place. Lastly, I cut some letters from various colors of paper to say "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" on the inside of the card. I felt a bit like a little kid again, giving my mother a home-made card for her birthday!

Best of all, I really did enjoy the process. And I hope some of my joy comes through the card.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Accidental Art

"Want to come see our scenery?" Anna asked me late one evening last summer shortly before the Fourth of July. 

She and a friend had been preparing for the neighborhood's Fourth of July play, painting scenery backdrops with poster paints on some white sheets taped to our garage door. They worked past dusk under the outside lights on the garage, and by now it was pretty late.

Since I was already in bed, or about to be, I was tempted to say I'd wait until the morning, but I could tell Anna really wanted me to take a look, so I agreed. The two sheets were now hanging inside our garage for safety overnight. 

They were wonderful! Simple colorful shapes denoting a crowd in an arena decorated one sheet. Sprigs of flowers and grasses signified a meadow on the other. I oohed and aahed and was ready to return to bed, until Anna said:

"Now you want to see the garage?" There was something different in her voice and face, a trace of her wry wit, perhaps? 

I was a bit puzzled. What more could there be?

I followed her lead and stepped outside the garage. There on the two-car-wide door was an exact, if slightly fainter, imprint of the two sheets! Much to the girls' surprise, while they were painting the sheets, the poster paints had seeped onto the garage door itself. It was all decked out in paint!

"I love it!" I said, or something like that. "Let's leave it there for a while. I think it's cool. I love the colors, and it's much more interesting than anyone else's garage!" 

Mostly it reminded me of one of Daniel Pinkwater's delightful children's books, The Big Orange Splot, about Mr. Plumbean, who woke one day to find that a gull had dropped a can of orange paint on his roof. And what at first seemed like a big mess became the inspiration for him to decorate his house and yard in wild colors and designs.

"My house is me and I am it," he declared to his unhappy and oh-so-tidy neighbors. "My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams."

And so the set designs stayed on our garage, fading slightly as summer turned to fall and fall to winter, winter to spring. I've enjoyed telling this story over and over to both the curious and the scornful. 

I've been thinking it may be time to scrub off what remains of the poster paint--but only in order to clear the way for another design with fresh colors! Garage art, anyone?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Honesty Bar

I have something to confess: I've been holding out on myself, on one of my promises to myself and, by extension, to readers of my blog.

I keep telling myself that honesty in my writing is really important, the way to really heartfelt, gutsy, interesting writing. And then I don't quite deliver. Keep holding back for fear of "what people will think." 

I even started my second blog, "Learning to Play", at least partly in hopes of getting more honest there, as if a second blog by a different title would make it easier to be really honest without worrying about what people think. 

Well, guess what? It didn't. In fact, it only made things more complicated because I now find myself having to decide what belongs in which blog. Not helpful.

So, while I'm not going to shut down "Learning to Play" (who knows what purpose it might have some day?), I do plan to pretend it doesn't exist for a while. Just keep blogging in this blog.

And here's a second thing: because I want to be a gutsy, funny, honest, and compassionate writer, I'm going to try being a gutsy, funny, honest, and compassionate writer. Maybe (joy of joys!) I already am just that in my best writing moments. I am simply doing my best to be clear here, publicly raising the bar on myself, that this is what I'm really committing to do.

While also being a playful, colorful, and happy painter of paintings and maker of collages. 

I told a friend yesterday that blogging was a way of lowering the bar for myself, not expecting great magnum opi (I suppose the plural would have to be magni opi) and thereby finding a way to remember that I enjoy writing, that it's not all torture. And that when I forget about myself and the tortured writer thing, I not only have fun with it but also usually write better stuff. 

So now I'm taking advantage of the lowered bar by raising it in a different way. Raising the honesty bar while not getting hung up on the quality bar. 

Tell me this: wouldn't you be more curious about a place called The Honesty Bar than a place called The Quality Bar?

Monday, June 8, 2009

It's Official!

In today's mail I found a brown envelope sporting British stamps and marked "Printed Papers" and "Please do not bend". I couldn't for the life of me imagine what it was--my official membership certificate in the Cloud Appreciation Society! It took only three days to get here!

Rather diminutive in size, it is large on classiness (as you can see from the photo at left). The text reads: "We do hereby certify that Sukie Curtis was elected [!] as a member of this society on 5th June 2009 and will henceforth seek to persuade all who'll listen of the wonder and beauty of clouds."

I am member number 16, 078.

The accompanying new member letter from the Society's founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, shows considerable eloquence, wit, and charm.

"Enclosed you will find an official membership badge [smaller than a US Quarter] and a personalised membership certificate. The certificate displays your unique membership number, which should be quoted in all correspondence with the society and should be written on your forehead at any society gatherings.

"We hope that you will wear your badge with pride and display your certificate in a prominent place for all to see. No expense should be spared when it comes to the framing of this certificate.

"We hope that you will visit us at THE CLOUD APPRECIATION SOCIETY website soon. Until then, look up to what Aristophanes called 'the patron goddesses of idle fellows', marvel at their ephemeral beauty, and never foget to live life with your head in the clouds."

Now, don't you want to join, too?

P.S. If you go to the Society's website via the hyperlink above (the one in all caps), it should lead you to the Cloud Photo Gallery. Scroll down a bit until you see a row of small photos. The photo that I took and sent to them last week appears in the left-hand end of the row of recently submitted photos. It is what's called a "summertime halo" or, more scientifically, a circumhorizon arc.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ah, Trinity Sunday

Back in 1997 while on a solo sabbatical journey to the San Francisco area, I happened to be at Grace Episcopal Cathedral on the day of Pentecost (it also happened to be my birthday that year). During the announcements that day, Alan Jones, the then Dean of the cathedral, said (in his wry, British-accented kind of way) something about the fact that next Sunday was Trinity Sunday, "when everything you've ever wanted to know about the mysterious doctrine of the Holy Trinity will be revealed."

I loved him on the spot. There he was in a classily humorous kind of way poking slight fun at this somewhat . . . how shall I say? . . .arcane Christian doctrine about "God in three persons," "trinity of persons and unity of substance," and such. Not the kind of thing that readily impacts most people in their daily lives of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with their God. Nor probably the trigger of the kinds of questions that keep many people awake at night, except maybe clergy who have to think up something to say on the topic.

Over the years in parish ministry, Trinity Sunday often seemed like a very good day for things like: having a guest preacher, holding "youth Sunday" and letting the youth themselves do the sermon, or some other variation on not having to speak meaningfully and compellingly about the Trinity. Not that that scheme always worked, but at least some years it did. 

If you follow David's blog you know that he is working on a sermon today to be preached tomorrow at one of Maine's Episcopal summer chapels, where he will also celebrate the Eucharist. He was a little slow calling back the summer chapel "supply scout" and when he did, he found that nearly all the summer Sundays had been spoken for, leaving only the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend and June 7.

Neither of us thought much about the date of June 7 as having any significance that would explain it's being one of the last chosen. Until, that is, we were counting Sundays forward from Easter and it suddenly dawned on me that it would be Trinity Sunday. I thought it was hilarious that it was one of that last days chosen, an unwanted orphan on the liturgical calendar. David was not quite as amused. And now, bless his heart and mind, he is working hard on a sermon. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Appreciating Clouds

Yesterday while Bekah and I were eating our lunch in the sun on our steps, I noticed this "rainbow cloud" above our neighbors' house (toward the west-southwest). Bekah ran inside to grab a camera and took several shots. 

The colors of the rainbow were brighter than they appear in this photo. I don't believe I've ever before seen a cloud bearing rainbow hues in quite this way. The cloud moved southward across the sky rather quickly, spreading out as it moved. But the colors never left it. As you can see in the photo, there were other clouds in the predominantly clear sky, all of them normal "white" ones. I suppose there must have been just the right form of moisture in or near this one cloud formation to create the rainbow.

Appropriately, first thing yesterday morning on the BBC's "World" radio program, and again in the afternoon on "The World" from WGBH Boston, I heard about the Cloud Appreciation Society in the United Kingdom. So I attempted to join up! Soon I hope I'll have a spiffy certificate to show for it.

I do enjoy and greatly appreciate clouds and their intriguing and ever-changing shapes and colors. At the same time, in light of the loss of the Air France Airbus jet over the Atlantic yesterday, I feel moved to remember that clouds are not just "pretty things".  Sadly, some clouds carry murderous weather conditions. 

Monday, June 1, 2009

And now, Remembering my Father

Today, June 1, would be my father's 94th birthday if he were still alive. June 10 will mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death just past his 64th birthday. Here's another poem I wrote several years ago (once again a poem I may have shared with my poet-friend Patty on a tea date).

Rowboat Song

My song is for the rowboat hauled out for winter,
listing in a sea of leaves. I love her lines,
the graceful beauty of her usefulness. But even more
I love the way she carries the music
of my father, his summertime humming and
the ringing of brass oarlocks dangling from his hand
as we walked the tangled path pungent with huckleberry
and sweet fern in August heat. Our syncopated footsteps
on the wooden runway, the slight lift and sway of the float
beneath us, slap-slap of running line on water
bringing the dinghy in. 

My father’s slender fingers
worked the line, hand over hand, removing strands of eelgrass
and slimy mermaid’s hair, bright green and matted. And then
his easy rowing, skilled feathering of oars, their rhythmic turning
in the locks, a two-part pulse of leather and wood against brass:
back and forward again, back and forward. Between strokes,
from the oar tips a whispered staccato drips in tiny
running steps across the water’s surface.

Did we speak? Maybe a little. Mostly in silence we’d do
what was needed—unstop the sails and hoist them,
let go the mooring line, back the jib to bring the bow
around and with sails filling slip gently out the harbor.
Funny—I remember always the setting out
but rarely the homecoming, always a new beginning,
another chance.

One additional note: We sold the rowboat that inspired this poem, but I made sure I kept the oarlocks. Every now and then I pick them up and dangle them just to hear them strike together ringingly. I think I'll be sure to do that today in honor of my dad on his birthday.