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Here’s a good lead-in to my presentation at church tonight, “Journey to Mexico.” In my final few weeks in San Miguel I posted a series, “Twenty things I’ll miss about San Miguel,” except things got very busy the last few days there and I never did post #19 and #20. So here we go.

I grew up in a pretty typical suburban US town, and our house used outdoor space in a way typical of the single-family, stand-alone houses of such towns. You had a front yard, which you didn’t use much except to build snowmen on and to keep a little distance between your living-room windows and the street, and a back yard, which was a very nice little haven of outdoor private space. But the outdoors stayed out and indoors was for indoors. I was unduly amazed when my parents put a skylight in to our “back room” (a.k.a. “the den”) and you could see the sky right through the ceiling. I’ve always loved skylights.

Mexico’s architecture comes from Spain (especially in colonial towns like San Miguel) and Spain got it from the Arabs, and the Arabs know a thing or two about incorporating outdoor space into indoor spaces. So it is extremely common in San Miguel to have an inner courtyard, many skylights, and a roof that’s essentially another plant-filled courtyard. It’s such a humane and wise way to design one’s living space.

The photo above is of our patio, blessed by our neighbor Adriana (tenant of one of the three side-by-side apartments in our house) who’s a great gardener. She squeezes plants in everywhere until it’s like walking through a benevolent jungle.

From our second floor, in one of the glorious storms that June afternoons brought, it looks like this:

You’ll just be strolling up a street and peek through a house’s open gate and be treated to this:

And this is where we got our mail. In addition to the lovely flora, it has an abundance of fauna, lovely and less so: a cat, a dog, a bird in a cage, a fish in a bowl, three turtles in the fountain, and several rattlesnakes in glass cages, including babies. Somehow I can get my mind around someone’s having a pet rattlesnake, but not their breeding them. Rattlers aside, I love that a simple no-frills business like a mail delivery service considers it totally appropriate to have a gorgeous garden.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s such a gift to the spirit to be surrounded by nature’s beauty even when you’re indoors.

(#19 of 20 things I miss about San Miguel)

I’ve been quiet here all week because my home computer went kaput. It’s in good hands now–the same hands that fixed the laptop I’m currently working on–so I’m hopeful.

Tomorrow’s sermon is on open minds and open hearts, and because of the devastation in Japan, what might have been a paragraph or two about how to keep an open heart in the face of tremendous suffering is now the major part of the sermon. I think we close our hearts because we fear that one chink in our gates will let the floods in and we too will be swept away.

The best guidance I know on this topic is Buddhist. In an interview for the Shambhala Sun, bell hooks asks Pema Chodron about the suffering people endure when they are miserable in their jobs, and the answer goes beyond that situation and speaks to this question that’s on my heart, about keeping a heart of compassion when others’ suffering threatens to overwhelm us. You can change your job, Chodron says. (I think: You can turn off the radio, stop paying attention to the news, stay in your car so you don’t have to encounter the homeless people sleeping in the street.)

But just changing the outer situation doesn’t get at the root of the discontent. This gets down to the truth of suffering again. As human beings, we need to look directly at suffering, at what causes it, at what makes it escalate, and at what allows it to dissolve. So the first thing is to acknowledge, with a lot of honesty and heart, that no matter where we go or what we do, there are always going to be both positive and negative feelings and that this is a fertile situation.

That’s why some teachings say that no matter what is happening in your life, it’s always showing you the true nature of reality. No matter what movie you’re in, no matter what the plot is of the current film you’re starring in, it is the vehicle for showing you the true nature of your mind.

So I feel the whole thing comes down to being very, very attuned to one’s emotions—to seeing how one is attached to the pleasant and has an aversion to what is painful. You work again and again on trying to discover how to get unhooked, to open and soften rather than to tighten and close down. It comes down to realizing the wisdom and compassion that are contained in this life that we have, just as it is. No matter how simplified or complicated life gets, it can make us miserable or it can wake us up.

We live in a culture that puts tremendous energy into escaping suffering, and if that means ignoring it–our own or others’–then that’s what we’re supposed to do. So we often pervert Buddhist teachings to make them sound like they are about escaping suffering, putting the laws the Buddhist perceived in the same basket as pretenders like “the law of attraction.” What grabbed me about Buddhism when I was 18 and James Stone, who would later be my senior thesis advisor (*bows*), stood at the front of a lecture hall and said, with that hand-rubbing relish of his, “Life is dukkha!,” was that this was not a religion that was going to dismiss suffering as an illusion. It is all about ending suffering, but the way is always through, not around. I love that Chodron refuses to make feeling good the goal. The goal, if one can even have a goal while being a Buddhist, is to open our hearts.

From an unknown source, Chodron again:

If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.

People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.

All 7-minute drawings, all charcoal and charcoal pencil as usual. It was hard to pick a focus on a lot of this session’s poses–the overall shapes of his poses were beautiful–but I forced myself to choose a section so that I’d be able to get into some detail.

Adopting a spiritual practice from a tradition not your own is always a delicate matter. Lent was a part of my growing up because so many of my neighbors, teachers, and friends were Catholic, but I’m not Christian myself and so I would not describe myself as “observing Lent.” Also, knowing my oh-so-American attraction to self-improvement, I’m aware of the subtle misuse of the practice: “Try this for forty days and your life will be changed!” As if it were a new, sure-fire, forty-day diet.

Nevertheless, Lent appeals to me because of its teaching that sacrifice and discipline are part of how we grow closer to the holy; because of its invitation to walk a little way with Jesus, who is one of my heroes, and its reference to his suffering and doubt, in other words his being genuinely human; because of its echoes of the forty years’ wandering of the Israelites and the story of Jonah, one of my favorites in the Bible. And because it is a sound and useful practice. So here are my three disciplines for this period:

(1) Go on a Facebook fast. No checking in for the next 40 days (or 46, since I don’t plan to excuse myself on Sundays). We are only a day into Lent and I’ve had the mindless impulse to see what’s happening on FB at least a dozen times. Can I make each of those moments of impulse and turning away from the impulse a meditation on the question: how do I want to spend the next half hour of this wild and precious life?

(2) Draw for ten minutes every day. Again, Sundays not excepted. This is about both discipline and discovering, again and again, per the name of this blog, the sacred in everything.

(3) Give to charity (or better, give to justice!). I was thinking of making this a daily practice, but I think I’m pushing my limits on daily practices already, so I’m just going to give, in one lump, to a cause that’s been speaking to my heart: the end of human trafficking. I’m still researching which organizations are most effective.

(c) Anderson—Alinari/Art Resource, New York

(c) Giraudon/Art Resource, New York

Who’s easier to draw, men or women? At the first break on Monday, the man next to me and I discussed it. He thought men were easier–“more obvious,” and added that the Greeks found men more aesthetically interesting. I wondered whether that was because they liked all that visible muscle–it gives you more to grab onto (may I stress: artistically speaking). Of course, they loved to sculpt athletes. Did Greek women do sports in ancient times? He thought yes. I don’t think it worked its way into their ideal of female beauty.  Even allowing for the fact that female athletes seldom develop the pronounced muscles that men do, Atalanta, on the right here, doesn’t really have a runner’s legs.

All of this musing was inspired by the new model. The studio’s been low on male models for a while, but this man started working this week, and he’s excellent. I wouldn’t call it easier, but it was a change and an interesting challenge. Last week’s weren’t that good, and having the rush of first-time readers due to the Freshly Pressed plug was like having all these people dropping by and me in curlers. So here are some from this Monday, a somewhat better hair day.

10-minute, including a rare foray into faces:

20-minute:

photo by Lin Kristensen; used with permission (Creative Commons)

I have always been an avid rereader. My dad, who in my childhood was forever introducing me to new authors he thought I’d like (to my everlasting gratitude), would see me reading Sal Fisher at Girl Scout Camp yet again and give a groan of despair. It didn’t take me long to notice that he did a lot of rereading himself, though, although I admit that The Tempest is more likely to turn up new subtleties on the fourth reading than Sal Fisher.

I do reread books to squeeze more juice out of them, though that’s not the only reason. I just like visiting with an old friend. If I liked them once, I’ll like them again, and I’ll laugh with an extra pleasure at the funny lines, as one does when reminded just how funny an old friend can be (I’m looking at you, Lawrence Block), and the sad parts have an extra poignancy when I know they’re coming but the characters don’t. The books I reread regularly tend to be the ones that had a strong effect on me the first time I read them, and also feature characters with whom I want to spend more time: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Animal Dreams (Barbara Kingsolver), American Gods (Neil Gaiman), The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett), The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin), and The Dispossessed (ditto) come to mind. Now that I’ve discovered the pleasures of Austen and Dickens, I think they’re going to become frequent rereads. But don’t be deceived by the depth of these books. I reread Terry Pratchett, not just the ones that really moved me or made me think (which tend to rise immediately to the rank of my favorites: Small Gods, Feet of Clay, Jingo, Reaper Man), but all of them, because he makes me laugh.

I also reread mysteries, which may seem particularly bizarre, but as I don’t read mysteries in order to figure out the puzzle in the first place (since I never can), knowing whodunnit doesn’t diminish the enjoyability. In fact, I am particularly drawn to the ones with the unforgettable solution, such as any one of Agatha Christie’s best, because I can watch how she’s laying clues and red herrings and know that I would never, ever spot them on my own. It’s like watching a magician at work after he’s shown you how the trick is done: the magic is not diminished, but doubled.

Rereading is a bit of a drug. Several months after moving and unpacking most of our books, we finally got the mysteries and scifi on their shelves, and my new reading has slowed way down as I read old favorites. More challenging things stay on my “currently reading” list for a couple of weeks, even though I’m a fast reader, because on a Sunday afternoon when I want to do nothing but veg, I reread Lawrence Block’s Burglar books (and oh how I wish he would write a few more. I don’t care if the places Bernie Rhodenbarr chooses to burgle have an improbably high murder rate rivalling St. Mary Mead’s, I just want to spend another 200 pages with him). In the months when the mind candy was still in boxes, I read more new-to-me fiction than in any period of my adulthood–with the possible exception of last spring, when I also read a lot of new stuff, and for the same reason: we were living in Mexico and had no access to the hundreds of already-read books that usually line our walls, and getting a book out of the library that I own and have already read seemed silly. It has been really great to read so much new stuff, and as my mortality presses on me–my gray hairs multiply, my daughter leaps from newborn to four-year-old in a moment, people my age die–I become ever more aware of the profundity of the t-shirt slogan: “So many books, so little time.”

I recently learned that some people don’t reread very often, and so I wonder: Do you reread a lot? Any books or genres in particular? What makes you pick up a book for a second, third, fourth, umpteenth time–or not? What are you reading or rereading now?

ETA: Welcome to everyone who found their way here via Freshly Pressed, and thanks for all the comments!  I’m sorry I can’t respond as fast as you can comment, but I’m loving hearing about what you all reread, or don’t.  And d’oh, Harry Potter is definitely on my frequently-read list.  I’ve read each one at least three times, and some many more than that, since discovering the series in 2000.

I can imagine myself drawing mostly the human form for the rest of my life. This was not the outcome I expected from devoting my sabbatical to art. I thought I’d mostly be making abstract collages, and while I did some of that, I’m feeling blocked in that kind of art, which is something to tackle eventually. I didn’t expect to find figure drawing so exhilarating that I would look forward to Monday mornings the way I look forward to Girl Scout cookie season. Every pose is a treat. No, I’m not doing it justice–it’s more like a religious experience. (Well, maybe Thin Mints are also.) I can’t really write any more about that. After Sunday my ability to express a spiritual moment in words is tapped out.

It’s so instructive to look at these (drawings from last Monday, 2/28) in thumbnail versions–it gives me a similar perspective to seeing them from across a large room.  Three things I’m learning, looking at them, that I want to keep in mind when I get to the studio in a hour:

  1. A tighter focus is yielding good results–don’t try to take in the whole body.  Keep working on small sections and really get into them in detail.
  2. Don’t use the pencil for shading.  Stick with the broad side of the charcoal stick for now.
  3. Go straight to the shadows. That shadow along her right ribs and wrist in (e) begins to give the whole drawing the depth and aliveness that I’m going for.

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