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Meditating With Agnes Martin

Over on Prufrock’s Dilemma’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/?sk=welcome#!/pages/Prufrocks-Dilemma/292303424216900), Susan Scheid shares this link:

“Junior Fellow Grace Ambrose invited 50 current and ex-Philadelphians to write about an object of their choice from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Taking shape as an edition of 50 postcards, the writings will comprise an alternate history and guide to the museum’s holdings, seen through the eyes of the artists, writers, musicians, and friends who live alongside them.”

As an enthusiastic follower of her blog, I have hopes that Susan will write her own response to the invitation. And, after mulling over the subject for a while, it has occurred to me that I might even try my own. Having considered the museum’s vast collection, and a small selection of personal favorites, I decided to begin from the other end and work my way back. This is a practice begun with a fellow student while in high school. We disagreed about a certain artist whose paintings she admired but I thought worthless. I appreciated her intellect and wit and decided to challenge her to write a short essay criticizing his work; I would oppose her and write his praises. She seemed doubtful at first but accepted the duel, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

Returning to PMA, I thought I would try the old approach and begin with art that decidedly did not appeal to me. And that took me to minimalist Agnes Martin’s painting “The Rose.” This is supposed to fit on a postcard, so I’ll try to write small.

First, there is an outside. Then there is an inside. From the outside, especially from sitting at a distance, the painting is apparently just a soft pink canvas. Anyone could paint it; it is pointless. You have to walk up to it, view it intimately, let your mind climb inside of it, and then go sit down again. Now you have learned that this is one of Martin’s grid paintings, a graphite grid echoed by a rose-colored grid. Viewing close up, you see the delicate lines; but start pulling back a little, and the grids begin to float. By the time you have seated yourself again to gaze from a distance, you see the pink glow of the whole six-foot square painting, and now you realize that you, yourself, have been drawn into it. When we see a rose, we automatically lean to inhale its fragrance. The scent distracts us from even the most beautiful vision of rose. Martin’s painting is the essential journey into the rose, on the molecular level where the rose, and you, begin losing your edges and become one. You’ll want a chair or a cushion, because this is meditation.

Perfectly enhancing this experience, for me, is Yo Yo Ma’s performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. One is fully absorbed, immediately, into the music, as mesmerizing as a chant, and sustained in the space of it long after the musician has put down his bow:

I invite anyone who reads this to add your own response to Grace Ambrose’s invitation, and post it on my Facebook page(https://www.facebook.com/?sk=welcome#!/elizabeth.newleaf?fref=ts). Can’t visit the Museum on the physical plane? They have a big website!


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Rumi’s Wolf

Last summer, when an unexpected event devastated my life, I woke suddenly into a world, much of which had little or nothing to do with me. Things to handle, sort through, get rid of. I knew I had to reduce chaos and clutter to a quiet level and make the world I would continue in simple, peaceful.

A friend from the other end of the country began a series of calls wanting to come spend time with me, asking how she could help me, offering to help in whatever ways I needed. We have known each other all our lives, and her voice and words bolstered me. I knew just the kind of help I needed from her, a kind she was just the right sort of person, maybe the best person, to give me. I also knew that timing is everything, and that I had to be prepared emotionally and otherwise for that type of help. Finally, she forced the issue, stating that her calendar would be too full if she didn’t come during the time least busy for her – which meant soon. I accepted gratefully, but nervously. But she reassured me that she would come and take over and handle all the overwhelming details. And I felt taken care of.

And so she arrived, with a round-trip ticket that could not be altered: the timing was fixed. And what began as the flight’s effect of jetlag and scratchy throat soon turned into full blown illness. My friend was sick, sleep all night and most of the day sick, medicine sick. I accepted early on that she was not there to take care of me, after all: I was supposed to take care of her. So I did. Nothing on my to-do list could be done. We visited when we could, remembered old days and nearly forgotten people. She could eat, so I cooked. She asked for a hair trimming, and I trimmed. And all the while, I reminded myself continuously of Rumi’s words:

“Quit acting like a wolf, and feel the shepherd’s love filling you.”

I don’t know what fate brought my friend here to get so sick that, despite the best intentions, she could not stay awake long enough to help me the way she wanted to. I just know that this was the gift I was given: I got the chance to stop wishing, expecting, taking; I got the chance to act for a little while like a shepherd. I know that I was blessed.

Thinking about this experience, the image of sunflowers kept coming to me. They survive even untended, faces turned to the sun, absorbing the light and available rain. The art corner of my brain searched for a painting to join my words, and I thought of Van Gogh. But his sunflowers are such a fanfare. And then I remembered Mrs. Delany and her paper mosaic art. She has a single sunflower that stands alone and dutiful as a flag, looking just-plucked, asking nothing, sharing itself, readying seeds that feed the birds and prepare for next year’s crop.


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Beauty Found Me

Beauty found me this week. I do not look for it, as it is everywhere. But it is not all for me, especially. So I don’t look for beauty: I wait until it finds me.

There is loveliness in grey days, certainly; the sun doesn’t have to be shining, in order to see the trees in winter silhouette. So it was not in a high mood, but in at least an even one that I strolled through the yard on the way to the compost pile in the far bottom corner. I was not on a garden ramble, for there is no garden interest now, particularly. And yet .. I felt the plants looking at me, those that are evergreen or just beginning to hint at their return. If I spoke “plant,” I imagined they would be wondering whether I would notice them now, without bushy foliage or flowers.

And then they caught me: there they were in the middle of the lawn, three wild ferns, an inch tall at most, having outlived the mowings of last year and grown enough to attract notice (knowing by experience that I would mark them with sticks and transplant them to safety when it’s warm enough). And so, my even mood elevated itself, and in a corner of my mind I joined the tiny ferns in forward-looking. When they’re in a garden bed, it is amazing how big they can grow!

Spring birds returning
Even in March winds,
Seedlings emerge


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Dance of carrots

You awaken early, and you’re the only one up
Into the kitchen
Coffee
And you lean against the sink and watch darkness turning into light-
On the window sill, in a shallow dish of water, carrot ends,
Trimmed by the seller of their ragged greens,
Patiently growing new leaves –
“Carrot lettuce” they’re called
They will grow a few inches long and add spicy crispness to salads…

It doesn’t end, the darkness, only waiting beyond the light until the quiet of evening eases back in. And as for the carrots, they too refuse to end, beginning again and again, until you have harvested as many leaves as they care to present, and the little disks of orange sun soften and return to separate liquid cells.


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Almost empty mind

Recently in Prufrock’s Dilemma (http://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/), Susan Scheid quoted A John Ashbery poem, “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name.” (Do you remember your Latin? Ut pictura poesis, literally, “As is painting so is poetry.”) The first section is about the creative process and is interesting in itself. But the last part, which Susan quoted, caught my attention and has stayed with me all week:

“The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.”

Who could overlook the image of lush, Rousseau-like foliage? Of course you cannot! It rushes at you, enmeshes you. And so all those paintings, generous in their jungle greenery, start springing through one’s memory. And yet… the extreme austerity of an almost empty mind is, for me, an even stronger experience, stronger because it is felt within, not seen without. And so, the visual that won out has not been Rousseau’s, but an imagined pond’s edge, waves coming to it and then leaving it. And that image has been bringing me repeated moments of freedom.

Contemplating the peacefulness of the empty, even almost empty, mind, the “desertion for other centers of communication” brings such a sensation of relief, having found that the “others” with their desire to understand were not the right persons with whom to share one’s self, after all. And with their abandonment comes release. The fickle waves approach the shore, sample it, and move on to other shores. A near miss!


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Goldfish for Red Reed

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recently, Dale Chihuly installed “Red Reeds” – tall lengths of red glass exhibited in a shallow outdoor pond.

Under the umbrella of night, an exchange was made. A red reed was broken and removed from the installation. At about the same time, goldfish appeared in the pond. No one knows how many persons were involved in the removal of reed, nor can count the number of donated fish.

And the reason for it all is anyone’s guess – some old form of barter? A mere serendipity? Or was it a karmic balancing, an instinctive addressing of a situation too much in favor on one side: you owe me a red reed, I owe you fish?

As in Japanese flower arrangement, there is a way that transcends the heavy plane of weights and measures and finds a balance which the eye recognizes and the spirit perceives. The persons unknown swam off into the night, the fish slipped away in the water, and all quietly re-emerged in a heightened state of art.


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“Not waving but drowning”

I have not written a blog before and can hardly be said to be writing one now. But I signed in to WordPress.com for the respite of reading other people’s blogs, and it hardly seems fair to make comments and just disappear, not showing myself. So here I am, but for the present I am only interested in reading blogs, while lacking anything to say.

I hear Stevie Smith’s words in my head, “not waving but drowning,” though when they come out of my mouth, they sound like, “not writing but listening.”