ICON AND MASK: WHEN IS AN OBJECT SACRED AND WHEN IS IT ART?

By Paul M. Lewis

Forty or more years ago, I purchased a late 17th century Russian icon of the type commonly referred to as the Mother of God of Kazan (Kazanskaya Bogomater). It depicts the Virgin Mother, holding her infant son, Jesus, who is facing directly outward, with His right hand lifted in a gesture of blessing. I have no idea as to the provenance (i.e. the exact origin and history) of this particular piece, how it left Russia (in the hastily thrown-together luggage of a wealthy aristocrat fleeing the Bolsheviks?), or how it eventually wound up in Chicago, where I bought it. But it’s not a stretch to think that it may have originally resided in a church somewhere in central Russia. Whatever its exact origins, it was undoubtedly an object of worship. People would typically come before such an icon, stand there in silent prayer, imploring the Mother of God for help or favors, or thanking her for gifts already bestowed. Nor would it have been uncommon for devout parishioners to bow low before the icon, reverently crossing themselves in the Russian manner. People did so especially before beginning a journey, sometimes a perilous undertaking in the late sixteen hundreds in Russia, asking for protection along the way.

Today, hung on a wall in our home here in Long Beach, California, it is no longer an object of worship. At least, I do not bow low before the Virgin, nor do I ask her for protection before leaving the house to go on a trip. And no one lights candles in front of it. Instead, anyone who visits us and sees the painting surely assumes that it is displayed as a piece of art. As such, it does have its own great beauty. The expression on the face of the Holy Mother is one of sublime quietude, exuding a kind of peace that comes only from the inner certainty of knowing who one is and of being unfailingly comfortable with that knowledge. The Child Jesus, on the other hand, looks more like a miniature adult than a young boy. Was this because the icon painter was depicting Him as born mature and fully developed, mentally, emotionally and of course spiritually, or was it a simple issue of artists of his day not knowing how to portray children, as children? Icons, at any rate, are always painted in a highly stylized manner; that is their nature, their greatest beauty and, to some, their greatest drawback. People sometimes complain that they do not look realistic—of course not, they were never intended to! Icon painters meant to portray the figures they painted as beings who reside on a far higher and more elevated plane of consciousness, well above the tediousness and pettiness of the quotidian.

But the principal question that concerns me here is not icons per se. Rather, it is this: When is something a sacred object, and when is it merely (unless that word is thought to be offensive in this context) a piece of art? Just last week, an auction took place in Paris in which a number of sacred masks of the Hopi Nation were on offer. The sale took place in spite of pleas by tribal elders, as well as on the part of US embassy officials, not to allow it to happen. Traditional Hopis consider such masks not mere representations of spiritual beings, but as the actual embodiment of them. Even taking photos of them is considered highly questionable. When under tribal control, they are never displayed casually, only ceremonially, at a time when these sacred beings are experienced as actually visiting the people and offering assistance. No self-respecting Hopi would ever dream of hanging such a mask on the wall, as a piece of art. Yet, there is little doubt that most buyers intend to do just that. Nor is this the first time such an auction has taken place in Paris.

So, are these masks, which undoubtedly possess a profundity and an utterly mysterious beauty all their own, to be considered as art (merely), or as sacred objects that should be returned to the tribe, where they are part of millennia-old cultural and religious traditions? The government of France ruled that they could be sold as art, to the great disappointment of the Hopi. Again, the question remains, when is an object sacred and when is it a piece of art? And, if I’m being frank about it, I suppose another similar question might also be asked: How do the Hopi masks differ in any substantive way from the icon of the Holy Mother of God, displayed on the dining room wall of our house? Are my partner and I guilty, too, of religious and cultural insensitivity?

In a very interesting article in the June 25, 2015 edition of the New York Review of Books, Julian Bell discusses a recent work depicting a long conversation about the nature of art between Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford. De Montebello was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for thirty-one years, and Gayford is a well-known British art critic. In the book, entitled Rendez-vous with Art, the director of the Met makes this provocative statement: “I don’t believe art has redemptive qualities.”

What can be made of such a statement, and what connection, if any, does it have to the question of distinguishing between the sacred and the artistic? The concept of redemption certainly sounds religious. It would seem to imply the need for, or the act of, being saved from something. Sin and evil are the usual suspects. Or did de Montebello mean to make reference more to ignorance than to sin? But if art saves nothing and no one, sacred objects, on the other hand, are purported to have redemptive power, at least for those who believe in their transcendental efficacy. I remember once reading that the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, said he had been asked if a picture of a particular Indian saint would be a protection for an individual who held it. His reply was: “If you believe it is a protection, it is a protection. If not, it’s only a simple photo.” Should this suggest to us that the sacredness of an object is not inherent within the object itself, but rather within the consciousness of the person coming into contact with it? Perhaps so. Or is it too much to think that art in and of itself, at its best, really ought to be considered sacred? In fact, can an object ever be both sacred and artistic, or must we think of them as one or the other?

We are conditioned, most of us anyway (ISIS fighters not withstanding), to have at very least a special kind of reverence for art. This is so whether we think of it literally as sacred or not. The Giotto altarpiece on the wall of a museum in Florence, the seated statue of the Lord Buddha taken from Angkor Wat by French explorers, and the Maya bas-relief of Quetzalcoatl ripped from the wall of a temple in the Yucatán all were once considered to be sacred objects. Displayed in museums today, or in the homes of wealthy art collectors, they appear to have lost that connection to the sacred. Or have they, and does it matter how the viewer perceives the objects, how she or he thinks of and interacts with them?

To most modern people, the answer may be as simple as knowing that once an object is in a museum, it is—more or less by definition—considered to be art, and therefore, not sacred, at least not in the normal meaning of that term. Although that still may depend on one’s religious beliefs. Devout Christians might consider the Giotto altarpiece sacred no matter where it is displayed, though probably not the Buddha, and certainly not Quetzalcoatl. Even so, if we think back to the original etymology of the term “sacred,” it refers to a thing that possesses power, and this power could be considered either as holy or as accursed. In this sense, who is to say that art, as we think of it today, doesn’t have its own kind of secular sacredness?

I know that I still think of the icon of the Holy Mother of God of Kazan as having its own brand of power. I don’t necessarily think of it as a depiction of the Virgin Mary of Christian lore. But I do think of it as a kind of illustration of the feminine aspect of the Divine Spirit. And if even that is too much, why not as a representation of universal motherhood, or the enormous mystery and power of creation itself?

Sacred or not, if art is to be felt at all, it surely has to have power, that is, a numinous kind of mystery about it that cannot ever be fully explained by the things of the intellect. Otherwise, what potency, and what effect, does it have? This is not in any way meant to argue against the Hopi, who I believe have every right to sue the French government for infringement of their rights. But it does speak to the question of whether or not there is a clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the artistic. Depending on your point of view, in the end, that may truly be a thing that resides in the mind of the beholder.

CHRISTMAS — THEN AND NOW

By Paul M. Lewis

Not everyone likes Christmas. Certainly not the way I do. And I’m not just talking about those who weren’t raised within the yuletide tradition. Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, atheist, et al. all have different feelings about the holiday. I get that, and of course, respect it. It even sometimes surprises me that I like the season as much as I do, given the fact that I no longer consider myself a Catholic, or even a Christian, or a member of any organized religion, for that matter.

Even so, I don’t deny that the memories are still there. Childhood in upstate New York with its snow swirling, cold biting, the wind howling. Inside was warm and cozy, or it was supposed to be anyway. And sometimes it was, except when my parents were consumed with worry about money, as they almost always were, or when Dad was drunk, as he was every night, or Mom had to work evenings, as she usually did, at the local department store over in Troy, selling undergarments to ladies much richer than she. Yet there was a tree, and somehow presents under the tree, and always turkey for dinner on the big day itself. So, things could have been much worse, and were for some.

I can also still see our parish church, St. Patrick’s, just across the street from the house: poinsettias, Midnight Mass, and a lovely manger scene set up just in front of the altar in honor of the Blessed Mother. She was, after all, the real star of the show. At least, that’s how the story came down to me back in those years. She and Joseph, who was pretty much a silent partner without a lot of clout, were the ones who had to go searching for a place to stay after Caesar Augustus came forth with his decree about paying taxes, and the two had to travel all the way to Bethlehem and wound up in a stable, when there were no rooms available in the inn. I always figured the stable couldn’t have been a very comfortable place, especially for Mary. But the infant Jesus didn’t know much at that point anyway, except we were always taught that He knew everything, so wouldn’t He have known how hard it was on his mother? And yet, he didn’t do anything about it; He didn’t find a nice warm room for her, even though He could have, being all-powerful and all. We were never told why He didn’t get a nicer room for her, but then I was a kid, and there were lots of things about the adult world that I didn’t get, and even feared I might never understand, so I just accepted things as a sort of given. The Church wasn’t big on being asked too many probing questions anyway, and the nuns could be pretty brutal, so best to keep you head down and your mouth shut. Silence was golden, as my 8th grade teacher, Sister Mary Barbara, was fond of reminding us, and the empty barrel makes the most noise. And who wants to be an empty barrel?

In those years, it seemed natural to believe everything I was told, and I did take things literally. In that, I was no exception. Pretty much everyone I knew did the same thing, and I’m not just talking about the kids. Most of the adults I knew did, too. Some people still do. Remember all of those Christmas cards people used to send with idealized scenes of the manger and the stable, ironically, contradictorily depicting it as simultaneously both ethereal and shoddy? Broken down, open to the weather. Usually a nighttime snowy scene with shepherds, and sheep, and lavishly berobed Magi in flowing garments, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, even though the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi actually were supposed to have arrived, didn’t take place until January 6th. Oddly, I thought, nobody ever looked cold, or uncomfortable, or particularly concerned that this young woman was giving birth surrounded by a bunch of farm animals. Not the most hygienic of places to give birth to the Savior of the world.

So, that was then. But what of now? I live in a different world at this point. It’s true that my partner and I still have a tree, one actually more elaborately decorated than any I ever knew as a kid. And there’s lots of good food, which I eat too much of, and try to burn the calories off at the gym each day. My partner is a terrific cook, so it’s hard to resist. We give gifts, and we make dinner for friends, some of whom we only get to visit with once a year, and we generally have a really nice time. Admittedly, there’s no snow here in Southern California, but we consider ourselves lucky if we have cool, rainy weather, which we’ve had a good amount of so far this season. And of course, there’s music. I love all the singing (well, except for some of the really inane songs that were so popular back in the 50’s and the 60’s that they still play: “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – really?). No, I’m much more attracted to the old standbys, by which I mostly mean the traditional carols.

But I don’t take them literally anymore. I don’t take much of anything related to spirituality literally. The point is it’s all symbolic, and to imagine a God-child born to an earthly mother (in a stable or not), who had conceived Him immaculately, which is to say, asexually, impregnated by the word of a visiting angel, all this seems a little much. Far better to think of it as referencing a kind of beginning, a new birth if you will, of higher consciousness within each person. The angels we have heard on high are our own higher power speaking to us, implanting notions of elevated awareness within ourselves. That’s the birth we ought to be celebrating, since it’s an actual possibility, one that each of us can work to bring about in our own lives.

It doesn’t matter who we are. Whatever our race may be, or our gender, our religious affiliation (if any), our sexual orientation, our nationality, our age, our looks, our degree of material wealth, our state of health, et cetera, we’re all capable of elevating our consciousness. I understand that this doesn’t accord very well what lots of religious teachers preach, but then I don’t listen to them anymore. The birth of our own higher consciousness ought to tell us that the rigidity of the do’s and don’ts of organized religions are too often excuses for manipulating people, making them feel guilty of transgressions (sins, so-called), with the ultimate goal of controlling both how people think and how they act. Glory to the newborn King! Yes, definitely. Except the king is our own elevated understanding of what it means to be both fully human, and more than human. As the Irish poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, says so beautifully: “Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best; but uncumberèd.”

And I’m not even saying I have anything against people taking these stories literally either, if they wish. Why not? If people find comfort in them, and if belief in the virgin birth of Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger puts joy in their hearts, who am I to say it shouldn’t be? I just wish that some of those people who believe these things in a literal way would give those of us who don’t a little room to make that all right, too

It’s true that not everyone celebrates Christmas. But whether we think of Chanukah, the birth of the Infant Jesus, the symbolic birth of Christ Consciousness, or just the turning of the year at the Winter Solstice, there really does seem to be an atmosphere of peace and joy around at this time. Longfellow once famously wrote: “The holiest of all holidays are those/Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;/The secret anniversaries of the heart.”

So, I say, it’s an excellent time for quiet reflection. Dare I even mention meditation? And if, for whatever reason, you still don’t feel some special presence this season, that’s fine, too. What’s maybe most important is that we act properly, treat others with respect, and would it kill any of us to smile a little more? Who knows? As actors discovered long ago, if you play the part right, it could well be you’ll begin to feel it, too. And in the end, that just may be the best holiday present any of us could give to those we love.

THE QUESTION OF THE DECADES

By Paul M. Lewis

There’s something about turning 70, as I did not so long ago, that gets your attention in a way that turning 69 did not. One day, you’re still in your 60’s, and the next morning suddenly you’ve arrived at what sounds like a whole new level of agedness. Of course, these are just numbers, numerals that have their life on a page, or in a computer, or while otherwise calculating something that can be counted up. This momentous moving from one ten-year spacing of numbers to the next that startles us so is what I think of as the question of the decades.   But it’s not the numbers per se that matter; it’s more what they remind us of. They seem to say: What have I done with my life; see how fleeting it all is; and what ought I to do with what remains? Ultimately, it’s the question of mortality that we all must face. How many more of these numberings will I attach to my life’s span before this particular series runs its course? The 17th century English poet, Andrew Marvell, put it this way: “But at my back I always hear/Times winged chariot hurrying near.”

Time – more to the point, fleeting time – is like that. It brings with it questions of meaning, of what we have done with what has been given to us. No wonder it’s a common topic in art of all kinds, since art at its finest puts us in touch with the ultimate questions. Art can make us ask ourselves, using whatever devices and conventions are specific to its particular expression, what is most important in life. We see it in theater, in novels and stories of all kinds, in painting (note the heartbreakingly beautiful and almost too painfully truthful self-portraits of the aging Rembrandt, for example), and as noted above in poetry. William Butler Yeats is one of those poets who spoke movingly of getting older. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of the great seminal poems of the early part of the 20th century, he says: “An aged man is a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick”. But he doesn’t stop at such a simple lament. The whole remainder of the poem speaks of what to do with our lives as we age: “unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress,/Nor is there singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence.”

Soul clap its hands and sing. What an interesting image; and what a wonderful thing to do as the body grows older, to make one’s own music, to choreograph one’s own life with a dance that incorporates the ages into it. How each person does that remains forever his or her own personal expression. And it is no one else’s place or right to dictate how that particular manifestation reveals and articulates itself. It is, after all, the reason for the journey in the first place, to give each of us the opportunity to create that most personal revelation of the ultimate magic of who we are. I am, as you no doubt have already noted, speaking here about nothing less than the meaning of life. And not just in some general philosophical sort of way, but specifically and most personally the meaning of one’s own life. That is the thing that no one can tell you, because as life unfolds, as we put foot in front of foot and make our way along its sometimes torturous path, our life slowly reveals itself to us, even as we create it ourselves. It could even be said that it reveals us, ourselves, as we most truly are. That’s why art is such a fine metaphor for life, because art too unveils itself through the artist’s use of what is within and without, all the while creating something utterly unique, a thing the world has never seen before, and which it will never again see the likes of.

What is it that the world sees? And in that ultimate sense, what do we see, as we both create and reveal our lives? Each day presents its own high and low points, its own opportunities for triumph and failure. Yes, of course, there are times in everyone’s life, critically divergent moments, when the choices we make set us along a certain course that veers this way or that. This also means that there were other paths that were presented, but which were not taken. Such are the decisions we all have to make, and we make them to the best of our abilities at the time. There is no room, no time later for regret, for the way we have chosen reflects who and what we were at the moment of the choice.

Still, it must be said, most of life is not so dramatic. We go about our business according to the diurnal patterns we all create for ourselves. We work each day, or we otherwise spend our time according to frameworks that have become familiar to us. And there is nothing wrong with that. Or, I correct myself, there is only something wrong with that if we do so unconsciously. Because the job of life must be to live as consciously as we can, in order to participate as fully as possible in its blossoming possibilities. It is exactly these steps we take each day, each moment, one following after the next that finally makes the fabric of the life we are weaving. Wisdom does not necessarily come with age. How many older people do we all know who have not achieved wisdom? No, it is not physically surviving for a certain number of years that counts, but the quality of the life that we have created. How to go about that? The best way I know is through reflection, dare I say meditation, that deepest form of introspection. Which one of us was born wise, and who has gone through childhood unscathed?   These are the givens that we must deal with. What we make of it all is what is ultimately important. Life never skimps in giving us opportunity after opportunity to test ourselves, to grow, to flourish and blossom, or else to wither and fade away. The highest inner qualities, peace and joy and wisdom, do not always come at first invitation. They are shy and diffident visitors; they must be coaxed and cajoled, lured even into the warm hearth of the soul.

These are some of the things I think of as I turn 70. It seems natural that one should think about them at this stage of life, but we all do well to think of them at every stage. Who we are at any moment in life is the end creation of what we have thought and done, what our hopes and aspirations are, how we treat ourselves and others in the wider world. That is as much true at age 20 as it is at 70. And we can only hope that with 50 years in between we might have learned something about what is important and what is not.

In Yeats’s symbology, Byzantium represents the goal, the hoped-for end of life’s journey. It is a mystical place that can never be fully explained, only experienced, because it is not a thing of the intellect. And that perhaps is a good part of ultimate wisdom, the acceptance of the fact that we cannot explain any of life’s final verities, only strive to achieve what a human being can never fully achieve, left to his or her own devices. In the last stanza of the poem, Yeats likens the soul, the human spirit, to a bird “set upon a golden bough to sing/To the lords and ladies of Byzantium/Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

It is a great metaphor. In the end, what more can any of us do but sing our song, work to understand the past, fully embrace each passing moment, and look with hope and trust for what is to come? Good advice to myself, as I enter into this next decade, and maybe not such bad advice at any age.

WRITING “AFTER THE DEVASTATION”

By Paul M. Lewis

It has been some time since I have written on this blog, and to those who read it on anything like a regular basis, I offer my apologies. What has been keeping me otherwise occupied is working on a novel that I originally wrote several years ago

The history of writing the novel goes something like this. Just before I retired at the end of the year 2006, I had a strikingly vivid dream. It was so powerful, and imposed itself so on me, that it woke me from sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning. I sat up and thought about it, but not wanting to awaken my partner, I went into another room and wrote it down. Basically, the dream gave me the broad outline of the book that I came to write. There are three parts to it, and each part was vividly laid out for me. This is what came directly from my subconscious mind. The characters described come, I suppose, from a combination of my conscious mind and the parts of my subconscious that leak out in ways that are both known and unknown to me. The “I” that speaks its name, that is, this amalgam of the aware and the unaware, the mindful and the slumberous, the cognizant and the incognizant that I normally think of and refer to as “me” is responsible for the detail of the story.

But the question that may legitimately pose itself is this: if I wrote the novel several years ago, why am I only now publishing it? That requires some small bit of explanation. The original writing of it took eighteen months. I wrote every day, and was utterly engrossed in it. The story followed the main outline of the original dream, but I had to create individuals to populate this superstructure, as well as plot, and of course conflict. The conflict was both easy and difficult for me. On the one hand, I have always been hyper-aware of conflict, both in my immediate surroundings and in the wider world. There is never, it seems, surcease of conflict. On the other hand, I have also never liked conflict, and my natural tendency is to shy away from it. Yet, you cannot write a novel without embedding discord, dissension and strife of various kinds within it. So, there is that aplenty in the novel. As an aside, all this reminds me of a story I once read about the great Bengali writer and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. He was spinning a story for his granddaughter, who loved to listen to the various tales he would create just for her. But in this one instance, his story was going on and on, and he was elderly and getting tired. So he began bringing it to an end. However, the granddaughter had other ideas, and each time he would make a move toward an ending, she would say to her grandfather that this or that then happened to the heroine, and so it couldn’t be the end yet. As Tagore later noted, there is no ending a story until the conflict is resolved. Or, I suppose, another way of thinking of it is, the story goes on and on, and it never fully ends. Whatever end we come up with is always a temporary one.

Once the novel was finished, with lots of help from friends, I attempted to find an agent and get it published. However, as an unknown author with an untested novel, no one was willing to take me on. I cannot say that I blame them. The publishing world has changed drastically in the last several years, and continues to change. As a result, I put the novel away for the next few years. It literally sat in a drawer, or in a file on the computer (some of both, actually), until just recently. What happened then was that I was about to turn 70 years old. As that birthday approached, I said to myself that if I am ever going to publish this, to give it a chance to be seen by a wider world than my own eyes, or only by my partner and a few willing friends, I had no choice but to self-publish. And this has been what I have been in the process of doing

Fortuitously, all of this coincided with my partner’s retirement from work. As such, I coopted him (he was more than willing) to make use of his excellent editorial services. We both read through the novel three or four times, depending on how you count, and in the process he made many extremely useful suggestions. I will not say that I took every one, but I did incorporate many of them. And I think, or at least it is my hope, that the novel is the better as a result.

So, I have now submitted the work to the publisher (Lulu.com), and they have just begun to work their own magic. I want to add here too that my old friend and blog-partner, Kevin, who is one of the finest artists I know, was kind enough to agree to create cover art for the novel. I cannot yet say exactly when the novel will be ready, but I am hopeful that sometime in the next couple of months, six at the outside, it will be available.

The novel itself is called After the Devastation, and a brief description of it goes something like this: The year is 2024, and the world is teetering on the brink of global environmental disaster and nuclear war. Nora tells her husband, Aden, she’s leaving to report on a crucial meeting at the new Chicago headquarters of the UN. With the world about to fall apart, this is the last thing he wants to hear. A professor and environmental specialist, Aden understands all too well the risks and dangers involved. But the worst does happen, and the two become lost to each other. In the ensuing years, they lead lives apart in isolated communities without modern technology or the conveniences once taken for granted. Separated and still longing for each other, they both rise to positions of power and leadership in fragments of civilization torn by their own brand of conflict based on religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and race. They meet traditionalists, doctrinal zealots, outrageous individualists, as well as shamans and those wise in the ways of the world. In the process, each discovers their own intuitive awakening and comes to know and rely on their personal spirit guides. It is a story of political intrigue and magical mysticism, as well as a tale of post-apocalyptic crisis and uncertain future for humanity, riven by its ever-present flaws, but bolstered by its greatest attributes. It poses the questions we ultimately all need to ask ourselves: can we learn from our past mistakes, and are we capable of building a new and better world, even after the devastation?

I have learned a great deal throughout this entire process, and again am enormously grateful for all of the help I have gotten along the way. I can only hope that the novel will live up to my own expectations, as a work that dramatizes and gives life to the enormous environmental issues of our day, to say nothing of the ageless human questions that challenge us all, and that it may serve to remind everyone who reads it of one essential truth – that the earth is not some senseless, inert thing, but has its own kind of consciousness, one that is both other, and greater than, our own.

EYE SURGERY — Improved Vision and Attitude Adjustment

by Kevin

I was amazed to feel as good as I did 24 hours after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery. Minutes after taking this photo I removed the bandage. At first my vision was blurry, but three days after surgery I could see better than I did the day before surgery, and my eyesight will improve in coming weeks and months.

I was amazed to feel as good as I did 24 hours after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery. Minutes after taking this photo I removed the bandage. At first my vision was blurry, but three days after surgery I could see better than I did the day before surgery, and my eyesight will improve in coming weeks and months.

Life is a school and daily events are lessons in how to live better. Some weeks serve up whole courses, employing some rather unique instructional approaches. Then there are those days when you get sent to the principal’s office. That was the case with my eye surgery last Friday. On Tuesday I visited retina specialist Dr. Roy Brod in Lancaster, PA, to evaluate the status of my macular pucker — extra epiretinal membrane tissue growing over my right retina and progressively obscuring the vision in that eye. He had told me three years ago that we would need to wait for the right time to do surgery — when the unwanted tissue was massive enough to remove, but before it was too well established.
 
Seven Tactics for Successful Surgery, Improved Vision, and Attitude Adjustment:
 
1. Motivation: Last Tuesday Dr. Brod finally said, “It’s time.” He had a cancellation in his Friday surgery schedule. We’d have to hustle through some preliminary lab tests and forms, but I could have the slot if I wanted it. I said “yes,” and three years of hypothetical dread of eye surgery became suddenly sharp and clear.
 
I said “yes,” because my vision was getting so bad that It was affecting my ability to work, make art, drive, negotiate stairs, and engage in daily activities. I may be 65, but I don’t feel finished yet. I’m not done working or making art or doing all sorts of normal activities. I cherish my vision as much as everyone else does, and that is sufficient motivation to sign up for surgery. But now I had to figure out how to survive the actual dreaded cut and peel procedure, especially since I would be awake for it. How was I going to hold still and be a good patient? Hell! How was I going to avoid bolting and running screaming out of the operating room?
 
Nobody can abide the thought of sharp objects near or in their eyes, and I am no exception. It seems to be a primal fear, like falling or being eaten by wild animals. I suppose humans have been accidentally poked in the eye by sharp sticks throughout our history, and that collective memory grosses us out — every one of us.
 
We have even turned this ancient fear into a childhood chant. When we want someone to make an excellent promise we require them to repeat: “Cross my heart and hope to die! Stick a needle in my eye!” The threat of a sharp object in the eye is sufficient to enforce any difficult commitment. But I had signed on for the dreaded poke deliberately and voluntarily, and I knew I was going to need more than just the motivation of better vision to get me through it.
 
2. Trust and Confidence: It was clear to me from the start, that you have to trust the guy with the sharp stick or there’s no hope. The “eye principal,” Dr. Roy Brod, is the best of the best in his field. Everyone says so. Along with a few bona fide saints, he is one of the most respected individuals I have ever encountered in any field. And he’s an incredibly nice guy. He’s just so amazingly kind to everyone. You can’t help wishing he lived next door. He’s a prince of a man who inspires confidence and trust with every look and word. And his touch is almost magical. When he gently places a hand on your shoulder or brow, you feel instantly comforted and strangely at peace. This quality is essential in someone you are going to trust with sharp objects close to and in your eyes, believe me.
 
3. Great Drugs: Nevertheless, I strongly recommend that you make damn sure there is a wonderful anesthesiologist with miraculous drugs at hand, whenever you go into surgery. They hooked me up to an IV and pumped God knows what into me throughout the procedure — a sedative? — a mood elevator? I don’t know… but whatever it was it worked. AND they totally knocked me out for the two minutes it took them to administer shots directly into my eye, so I was not awake for that choice moment, thank goodness! The rest of the time I felt so calm that I had NO trouble holding still, and I was basically just fascinated by the whole process, including the visuals, like a good movie playing right inside my retina.

I’m so grateful for those great drugs, because I was awake and could see the entire procedure. I was watching the needle-fine instrument when its tiny jaws opened and grabbed the largest piece of my extra epiretinal membrane tissue to peel and pull it away and out of my eye. I was quite calm and intrigued, and my only thought was, “There goes my problem!” When Dr. Brod administered iodine drops I was mesmerized by the beautiful swirling magenta patterns in my field of vision. And when it was all over I realized that it had been a walk in the park.

4. Support of Friends: Oh sure… It’s a picnic when it’s all over, but what about the suspense beforehand? How do you deal with the adrenalin surges every time you realize, “Oh my God! I’m having eye surgery in two days!” How do you cope with the terror associated with eye torture when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep? I decided to tell people about my surgery, not because I needed the world to know, but because I wanted as much moral support from the positive thoughts, prayers and hopes of friends and loved ones as I could get. And it worked! I could really feel it powerfully. It helped so clearly that the day before my surgery, even without any drugs, I was already flying. My profound thanks to everyone who said a prayer or sent me a positive thought.

5. Attitude Positioning: The day before surgery I decided that this procedure was a cosmetic luxury afforded only to the rich (people with some means, Medicare and supplemental insurance like me) who happen to be living in modern times. As such, it seemed to me that it was like going to the spa for a professional massage, shampoo, haircut and facial. I adopted that attitude. I was there to be pampered, and I remained in that frame of mind throughout. When Dr. Brod entered the operating room I was blindfolded, but I raised my hand and said, “Thank you for coming to my party!” He laughed and said, “Yes! Let’s have a great party!” I really like Dr. Brod so much. He is so generous with everyone. That helped with my “spa pampering” attitude positioning. Dr. Brod was my personal masseur and spa master who was there to spoil me and make me feel special and wonderful.

6. Surrender: From that attitudinal perspective it was easy to lie back and relax. Living in the woods, I have noticed that when the animals are dying or in dire situations, they surrender and become still and quiet. They let go. I thought often in the few days prior to my surgery about specific animals I have witnessed in these kinds of situations and how deeply instructive their behavior was. I decided to imagine that my circumstances were much more dire than eye surgery — What if I were scheduled to be unfairly executed in the morning? What attitude would I want to adopt in that case? I thought of other dire cirumstances. When I returned to the reality of eye surgery, it did not seem so difficult or frightening after all.

This is my 4 x 7 ft oil on canvas, "Poseidon's Prophecy," in progress. I'm looking forward to getting back to work on it with improved vision.

This is my 4 x 7 ft oil on canvas, “Poseidon’s Prophecy,” in progress. I’m looking forward to getting back to work on it with improved vision.

7. Divine Intervention: But I still had one ace up my sleeve, and the day of the surgery was the time to play it. Much of the time before, during and after the procedure, I managed to chant to the Divine Beloved, and to think of five very saintly individuals I have been so fortunate to meet or know in my lifetime. I called upon them to stand with me. This was very calming, reassuring and helpful. I was especially aware of one of them holding my right hand where the IV was inserted. Whenever I was tempted to feel afraid or stressed, I focused on The Infinite Beloved in the forms of these five saints, and  was at peace instantly. The stress left my body and I became pyscially relaxed and still.

My brother, Dr. Chris Miller, picked me up after the surgery. Dr. Brod called him to say that the procedure had gone extremely well and that I had been a perfect patient — didn’t move a muscle. Chris was very kind to me and allowed me to rest quietly in his beautiful garden or sleep in his recliner. He made us a fantastic lunch — grilled vegetable and fried egg sandwhiches on whole grain toast. Yum!

Then Chris took me back as Dr. Brod had requested for a post-op evaluation six hours after the surgery. The doctor was so excited when he analyzed the results of his own work that he was almost jumping up and down. He said, “Just for the fun of it, let’s take some more images. I won’t charge you for them. It would just be so interesting to compare the images immediately before and after surgery.” He was so pleased with the pictures that he said he might write a paper about my case.

I described my visual experience of the procedure and he was fascinated and delighted. When it was time for me to leave, Dr. Brod admonished me not to do any strenuous activity or lift anything heavier than 25 lbs, and to leave the bandage on overnight, before starting to administer drops four times daily. I asked if I could pick berries, because it is high berry season in the woods. He said “yes.”

We have a bumper crop of berries on our 12 acres this year, and I was relieved when Dr. Brod agreed to allow me to pick them. I wore big sun glasses to protect my eye from thorny berry branches and glaring sun, as I picked a half-gallon of ripe berries two days after eye surgery.

We have a bumper crop of berries on our 12 acres this year, and I was relieved when Dr. Brod agreed to allow me to pick them. I wore big sun glasses to protect my eye from thorny berry branches and glaring sun, as I picked a half-gallon of ripe berries two days after eye surgery.

I have not had one minute of discomfort through this entire experience. The doctor wrote me a prescription for a heavy duty pain killer and said that I would very likely have to use it to get through the pain that would eventually come. But there has been no pain whatsoever. Well… okay… I did have a few moments of rather exquisite pain yesterday when I was picking berries two days after the surgery. I unknowingly stepped on the home of a colony of ground-dwelling bees. They swarmed and five of them stung me on my right arm within five seconds. Now THAT hurt! It hurt infinitely more than anything I experienced during eye surgery.

The bee strings made me realize that sometimes the pain we think we feel is imaginary. We feel it whether it really is painful or not, just because we perceive the circumstances to be hurtful — like a needle in the eye — because of how awful it looks or seems. When I analyzed the actual pain of the bee strings, as opposed to the perceived pain, that wasn’t as bad as I had thought either. In fact it was entirely gone within minutes, and a few hours later there was no sign of the very understandable assault by the poor bees against whom I had trespassed.

Today, just three days after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery, I can already see much better than I did the day before the procedure. And Dr. Brod has assured me that my vision will continue to improve for several weeks and months. I am excited to discover how much of my original visual acuity might return and to experience what that will mean when I am working, making art, driving and just living daily life. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity, and aware that not so many decades ago it would not have been possible. I would have gone nearly blind in my right eye and coped as best I could with one remaining eye.

A close-up view of this summer's berries.

A close-up view of this summer’s berries.

Life is a school, and I learned some important lessons in this Course on Vision: I learned that it isn’t just Dr. Brod’s incredibly steady hands that make his practice so successful, but also his obvious joy and pleasure in his chosen vocation. That intrinsic love of his work inspires confidence in his patients and insures positive outcomes. I also learned that there are at least seven tactics that patients can adopt to help doctors perform successful surgeries, but more importantly, those same tactics can be applied for a more rewarding life in general. Well… okay… when it comes to #3, “Great Drugs,” at least in my case, this is primarily about my ongoing efforts to moderate my morning tea and evening cocktail intake… and come to think of it, that really is quite important. So all seven of these principles apply to life in general, for me anyway.

Another week… another course in the School of Life… another step closer to clear vision. By the way, in case you were wondering, attendance is compulsory in the lessons and courses offered by the School of Life, until graduation, when we shall see all things clearly. Until then our job is to be attentive students. Don’t be afraid to challenge the authorities and ask really hard questions. When the opportunity presents itself, be generous and offer to help others with their studies, especially if they are struggling or fear they may even be failing. Finally, the wise student will pause regularly to express private inner gratitude for the invaluable and rare opportunity to learn and progress in this School of Life.

 

“Forward on Climate” 40,000 Rally in D.C. Feb 17, 2013 — Photos from Kevin

Kevin (left) and Robert (right) bought new silk long underwear, found their warmest hats and attended one of the hottest events of the year -- "Forward on Climate," on the mall in Washington D.C. Four buses carried 150+ concerned citizens from York and Lancaster, PA to the Washington Monument, under the very able guidance of the Rev. Jerry Lee Miller, Founder of "HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity" -- See our page on FaceBook.

Kevin (left) and Robert (right) bought new silk long underwear, found their warmest hats and attended one of the hottest events of the year — “Forward on Climate,” on the mall in Washington D.C. Four buses carried 150+ concerned citizens from York and Lancaster, PA to the Washington Monument, under the very able guidance of the Rev. Jerry Lee Miller, Founder of “HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity” — See our page on FaceBook.

 

Jacques Cousteau was right. A situation has indeed arisen on Planet Earth, causing all of us to join forces and demand action on climate change. Our great cities and coasts are begin torn apart by hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy. Massive wilfires are burning the U.S. Southwest. A devastating drought decimated American Midwest crops in 2012. The Earth's atmosphere is 5% wetter and the oceans are much more acidic. Half of the arctic ice mass is gone in the summer, and an area larger than the U.S. melted in 2012. Chunks of Greenland are breaking off and floating away as flash melting and seismic activity increase. Mother Earth is crying out for our protection. It is our moral duty to stop these atacks against Her by ceasing the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and switching to clean renewable energy so that future generations will inherit a planet that can support life. That is why 40,000 of us gathered by the Washington Monument and marched around the White House on a very cold, windy winter day. We joined forces to ask the whole world to come along with us in changing course for the benefit of all life on Earth.

Jacques Cousteau was right. A situation has indeed arisen on Planet Earth, causing all of us to join forces and demand action on climate change. Our great cities and coasts are being torn apart by hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy. Massive wilfires are burning the U.S. Southwest. A devastating drought decimated American Midwest crops in 2012. The Earth’s atmosphere is 5% wetter and the oceans are much more acidic. Half of the arctic ice mass is gone in the summer, and an area larger than the U.S. melted in 2012. Big chunks of Greenland are breaking off and floating away as flash melting and seismic activity increase. Island nations are sinking as the oceans rise. Mother Earth is crying out for our protection. It is our moral duty to stop these atacks against Her by ceasing the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and switching to clean renewable energy so that future generations will inherit a planet that can support life. That is why 40,000 of us gathered by the Washington Monument and marched around the White House on a very cold, windy winter day. We joined forces to ask the whole world to come along with us in changing course to halt global climate change for the benefit of all life on Earth.

 

All 40,000 of us were entertained by live music and inspiring speakers. Robert Allen gave Jerry Lee Miller a bird hat, which he is wearing in this photo as he greets trombonist Soul Furnace, who played with his band on the streets around the White House for all of us to enjoy.

All 40,000 of us were entertained by live music and inspiring speakers. Robert Allen gave Jerry Lee Miller a bird hat, which he is wearing in this photo as he greets trombonist Soul Furnace, who played with his band on the streets around the White House for all of us to enjoy.

The most popular messages seen and heard at the "Forward on Climate" rally were "Stop the XL Keystone Pipeline," and "Switch from Fossil Fuels to Clean Renewable Energy" and "No More Fracking." It was and is all about ceasing the extraction and burning of carbon that is warming the planet and making it unsuitable as a habitat for life.

The most popular messages seen and heard at the “Forward on Climate” rally were “Stop the XL Keystone Pipeline,” and “Switch from Fossil Fuels to Clean Renewable Energy” and “No More Fracking.” It was and is all about ceasing the extraction and burning of carbon that is warming the planet and making it unsuitable as a habitat for life.

It was poignant to see so many compelling signs juxtaposed against the Washington Monument and the cloudy sky.

It was poignant to see so many compelling signs juxtaposed against the Washington Monument and the cloudy sky.

There were many handmade signs carried by the 40,000 concerned citizens who marched around the White House to demand action on climate change, including stopping the XL Keystone Pipeline and fracking. This tragic and beautiful original collage-painting was the best art we saw all day.

There were many handmade signs carried by the 40,000 concerned citizens who marched around the White House to demand action on climate change, including stopping the XL Keystone Pipeline and fracking. This tragic and beautiful original collage-painting was the best art we saw all day.

As the crowd grew from 30,000 to an estimated 50,000 for the march to the White House, we listened to inspiring talks like this one from Bill McKibben, Founder of 350.org, which co-sponsored the rally along with the Sierra Club and 150 other environmental organizations.

As the crowd grew from 30,000 to an estimated 50,000 for the march to the White House, we listened to inspiring talks like this one from Bill McKibben, Founder of 350.org, which co-sponsored the rally along with the Sierra Club and 150 other environmental organizations.

Rev. Jerry Lee Miller (left) and Susan Finn Miller (right) at the "Forward on Climate" rally in Washington D.C. Feb 17, 2013. Jerry donated all of his time for well over a month to recruit and organize over 150 concerned citizens from Lancaster and York PA to fill four big buses for the rally. Jerry is the Founder of "HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity." See their page on FaceBook.

Rev. Jerry Lee Miller (left) and Susan Finn Miller (right) at the “Forward on Climate” rally in Washington D.C. Feb 17, 2013. Jerry donated all of his time for well over a month to recruit and organize over 150 concerned citizens from Lancaster and York PA to fill four big buses for the rally. Jerry is the Founder of “HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity.” See their page on FaceBook.

NOW WHAT CAN WE DO?

Here are several concrete steps we can all take to demand that government and fossil fuel companies stop extracting and burning carbon and switch to clean renewable energy:

1. We can write to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry and our Senators and Congressional representatives asking them to halt the XL Keystone Pipeline, which NASA climatologist James Hansen said would mean “Game over” for the climate and our planet if this dirty carbon pipeline goes through.

2. We can write and call our state representatives and newspapers demanding a cessation of fracking and asking them for aggressive programs to promote switching to clean renewable energy sources like solar and wind and geothermal.

3. We can lobby our national church organizations and colleges and universities and other institutions to eliminate fossil fuel from their investment portfolios. Divestment worked to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa. It can work again to save the planet as a habitat that will support life in the future.

4. We can all join a sensible science-based environmental organization like Bill McKibben’s 350.org or the Sierra Club nationally, and a local group like “HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity” in York and Lancaster, PA (See our FaceBook page) to promote visible, audible, creative action to halt climate change. If you can’t find a local group, start one. Write to me and I will tell you how.

5. If we know how to pray, now would be a good time to do that. Our planet is right on the edge of the amount of heating it can absorb (2 degrees Celsius) before truly catastrophic and extreme events begin to make Katrina and Sandy look like child’s play.

Ask youself three questions: A) What can I do? B) What am I willing to do? and C) What am I qualified to do? Think long and hard and make a list under each of those questions. If anything at all shows up on all three lists then DO THOSE THINGS. Now is the time, because time is running out. There is certainly no time to waste. Thank you for anything you can do, are willing to do and are qualified to do to help save Planet Earth as a habitable home for future generations of human beings and for all life supported  by our beautiful Mother Earth.

"Forward on Climate" rally and march in Washington D.C. Feb 17, 2012
“Forward on Climate” rally and march in Washington D.C. Feb 17, 2012

Forward on Climate! Join us.

Yours, -Kevin

ART AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN

By Paul

I have often thought about what the definition of art might be. What could such a concept mean? It appears so grand, at least much of the time, to our everyday selves, so beyond the ken of the ordinary, and therefore so elusive, so elevated, so noble, so distinguished – well, so magnificent. The latter word, itself, coming ultimately from its original Latin roots, “magnus” and “facere,” meaning “great” and “to make.” Does not art, in fact, have to do with the making of great things?

Is there, then, a single definition of what art is? One that can span the chasm of all the possible forms that art, as we normally think of it, can take? Indeed, can such a high-minded thing as art, so grand a concept, if that is what it is, ever be pinned down to anything as prosaic as what we might think of as a definition. Definitions, after all, help us understand things, help us grasp them, and does such a notion not fly in the very face of art as being a thing beyond the grasp of us ordinary mortals?

We are, surely, most of us, determinedly concerned with the diurnal, with the day to day business of living, and making a living, of taking care of our usual, and our usually not so distinguished, needs, as well as the needs of our loved ones around us. But if we were to know what art is, if we secretly dared to define it, then suddenly it might come within our grasp. It would be as if the preeminence of on high were to visit the humdrum tedium of the conventional, as if a Great Light were to be shined, not onto darkness perhaps, but instead onto what we might call the dim twilight of our unremarkable lives.

Or, am I wrong? Is there truly such a thing as an unremarkable life? Could we equally not say that all life, as it were by definition, is itself remarkable, wholly special, meaningfully individual, and deeply significant in itself? As Whitman remarks so beautifully: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body, and I have said that the body is not more than the soul, and nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.”

But here, are we not treading upon dangerous ground? Are we, seemingly, about to conflate the notions of art and spirit? Or Art and Spirit, if you wish. And if there is one thing we modern people know, it is that art and religion have long ago parted company, if ever in fact they truly walked together hand in hand on this long-suffering earth. The art of the past, while often, or even mostly, religious in expression, was perhaps largely so because conventional churches had power and prestige, and the money that accompanies both. As such, religious leaders could call the shots. They were able to determine what was created, by whom, and what was to be seen where. It follows as the day the night, then, that they had a natural wish to underpin and undergird the very myths and stories which gave them authority and influence in the first place.

Some would say that, if art is anything, it must be a reflection of its time. Or else, how can it speak to anyone living in those times, how can its language translate, as it were, across the ages? But, in fact, we know that great art does bridge the gap of time. Who cannot, for example, look at the Apollo Belvedere, or the statue of Laocoön and his sons fighting the writhing serpent, or Michelangelo’s David, or those enormous Olmec Heads standing and gazing out into mystery, or Shiva Nataraja of the Cosmic Dance in perfect balance between spirit and nature, and not feel in some deep sense what its creator felt?

And let us not forget art this is more ephemeral either. Let us not neglect all of the great masks created in straw or fiber or wood, made by what so-called civilized people have scornfully and arrogantly dared to call primitives, some of whose works have come down to us through the ages, but much of which has perished on the garbage heap, or in the fire of war and the bigotry and violence of one culture eliminating another. Neither ought we to forget the great art of dance, and all of its attendant arts, of lighting and of costuming for example, some of which again clings to tenuous time, as do the ballets of Europe still performed today and a few of the classics of Modern Dance, but much of which passes away with the passing of one great choreographer or another into the depths of unreachable eternity.

Is, therefore, permanence necessary for art? Hardly, it would seem. As even those things we think of as permanent, that made of marble or other stone, or painted upon canvas, or written upon tablets or paper preserved in our libraries, or in the so-called “cloud” of modern electronic media magic, all too will someday perish, as surely as did the melting idol, burnt at the destructive hand of the disdainful priest of yet another jealous idol, all too temporarily replacing it. No, art may be long and life short, as the old Latin saying tells us – ars longa, vita brevis – but in the larger scheme, art too struts its gorgeous stuff all too briefly on the larger and broader stage of life. It exists but for a moment, along with those who created it, as well as those who saw, appreciated, and were perhaps for a time moved, or touched, or uplifted by it.

Art and humanity, of course, cannot be separated. As glorious and as truly magnificent as are all the other creatures of the earth, none makes art as do people. And yet, of course, we too are animals, roiling in the dust and dirt of our daily lives, toiling and rutting and worrying until we drop from exhaustion, wondering, if we are fortunate enough, for a brief moment what we have done and why. But humans are surely more than that, too. Are we also not in our essence and at our very core great luminous beings, hidden away from each other and from our own selves in temporary bodies of flesh? As such, we are capable of experiencing life in its deepest, most intimate, as well as its most visceral form.

Yes, there is no doubt we are always and everywhere full of the play of opposites, expressing both the highest and the lowest, able to accomplish everything from the greatest acts of kindness and compassion to the meanest deeds of degradation, from the grandest works of art to the most hideous and horrifying destruction. This is, after all, what it means to live in the physical world, a place of incalculable beauty and wonder, and of the most profound imperfection and of all manner of failing.

Even so, there are times when it seems we are capable of seeing up and beyond, or if you prefer, deeply within. The metaphor itself is not as important as the act. It is this seeing that is the essence of art, or at least its beginning. Beyond that then comes how we speak of it, for to be truly representative of this depth of vision, we must summon some kind of thoughtful, and thought out, expression thereof. Art must surely not be a thing dashed off in a haphazard moment, but something prepared, constructed, assembled using both emotion and intellect, and worked on in a fully conscious way. Inspiration may be the beginning of art, but only discipline can complete it. And I am not talking here of words only, for we are doubtless capable of speaking in every medium, and using every tool at our disposal.

A single definition of art must, therefore, encompass these notions, these ideas, these profound truths, all of which point, however imperfectly, to a meaning that shows that we are somehow more than what we at first may seem to be. Indeed, if in the end art is not the external, disciplined expression of what is ultimately internal and transcendent in the human heart, then I confess that I do not know what it is.

Mother Nature Sends Sandy to Make Climate Change a Conservative Issue

by Kevin

The light yet shines. It is time for people of all socio-economic-political stripes to speak with one voice and demand that governments and fossil fuel companies switch as quickly as possible to clean renewable energy to save Mother Nature and leave a habitable planet for future generations. (Political cartoon by Kevin, 2012.)

The Two-Ton Gorilla in the Livingroom

For many years the very mention of climate change has been taboo for TV reporters and commentators. It was never discussed. Mother Nature has been trying to focus our attention on this issue, because it is killing Her. She broke off chunks of Greenland the size of Manhattan and we barely noticed as they floated away. She virtually destroyed New Orleans, but President W and “Brownie” and the rich and powerful paid no attention, because the masses that suffered and the thousand who died were mostly poor people of color. So Katrina did not work. Mother Nature deprived much of the country of a real winter last year, and everyone just said “thank you.” Finally, She decided to go really big with her attention grabbing statements, and last summer She burned up all the Midwest crops in a disastrous drought, reduced the mighty Mississippi River to a trickle, and charred huge swaths of the West with massive wildfires. There was still virtually no mention of climate change! What does a damsel in distress have to do to get saved these days?
 
“It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature!”
 
Last week everything changed. Mother Nature really got her panties all up in a bunch because the presidential campaign was almost over and climate change had never been mentioned in the debates or stump speeches or lists of voter concerns. So Her hand was forced. She had no choice. Mother Nature sent Hurricane Sandy to Wall Street, the financial capital of the world, to wake up the rich and powerful. Wall Street and much of New York City were under water. Lower Manhattan was cold and dark for five days. Staten Island and Hoboken are still in deep distress at this writing. The New Jersey coast was destroyed. The storm was 1,000 miles wide! Mother Nature delivered Her unmistakable message loud and clear to Wall Street’s rich and powerful: “You will lose New York City and your Jersey Shore playground unless you come to my rescue and do something about climate change immediately!” 
 
Mother Nature has finally succeeded in focusing some attention on Her own dire plight. Suddenly almost every TV news reporter and commentator cannot stop talking about climate change. There are featured stories and discussions about it on cable news. New York’s Governor Cuomo made it clear in public statements that the Hurricane Sandy disaster was caused by climate change. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg belatedly and abruptly endorsed President Obama, indicating that the president was more likely than Romney to do something about climate change. Then Bloomberg was forced by public outrage to cancel the New York Marathon because everyone demanded that those resources be allocated to disaster relief.
 
Speaking Truth to Power and Money
 
Mother Nature has come to the sad realization that She has to take her plight directly to the doorstep of power and money if She is to be heard. Hurricane Sandy has made climate change a conservative issue. It may take a few more hits like this one where the rich and powerful live, work and play, on Wall Street and the Jersey Shore, and other bastions of wealth, power, luxury and privilege, but Mother Nature will eventually force conservatives to begin pushing for a halt and reversal of climate change.
 
Why Climate Change Is a Conservative Issue
 
1. Loss of Property — Nobody likes to lose their hard-earned, cherished property. New York City and the Jersey Shore comprise one hell of a piece of property to lose. Did you see the photos of all those yachts and luxury cars piled up on the Jersey Shore?… and all those destroyed weekend homes and resorts and vacation areas? Wall Street was under water and shut down for two days. This kind of sudden loss is a real shock to anyone who is attached to material possessions, and who is not? People are going to want to be assured that their property will be protected, especially when insurance is priced out of sight. They’ll talk about massive sea walls and gigantic ocean gates and fortress engineering for a while, but eventually it will become clear that Mother Nature will take what She wants if we do not stop killing Her by altering the chemistry of Her atmosphere and oceans and soil with carbon and greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels.
 
2. Extinction is Bad for Profits — The sad economics of ignoring escalating global climate change and ecological destruction, add up to a lose/lose/lose/lose scenario for A. Business/ B. Wall Street Investors/ C. Governments/ and D. The Electorate. The people who comprise all four of these elements of civilization will die off when Earth becomes a boiling, burning sci-fi planet, and there will be nobody left to play the game of capitalism. In order for commerce to work, we must have at least sellers and buyers. Without either one of those there are no profits and nobody to collect the profits. Then the game is over.
 
3. Cost of Preparedness and Disaster Response — Five days after landfall, on MSNBC’s must-watch weekend round table, “Up with Chris Hayes,” Klaus Jacob of Columbia said that in about 85 years the sea level in Manhattan on a calm sunny day will be the same as it was at the height of Sandy’s storm surge. Two years ago he wrote a study predicting every detail of what happened in Manhattan this past week, right down to the specific flooded tunnels and subway lines. Now he asserts that investing in preparedness engineering will cost 10 times less than relying only on disaster clean-up, but either way it’s going to be extremely expensive. The clean-up for Katrina was way over $100 billion. Losses from Sandy are estimated at $50 billion. Who knows how much the clean up and replacement bill will be? It seems only logical that conservatives will eventually ask how we can treat this problem at its root so that we can stop throwing obscene amounts of money at preparing for or cleaning up after the symptoms.
 
4. Public and Political Pressure Mount — Governments and political entities do, in fact, respond when the force of public opinion becomes insurmountable. Witness Mayor Bloomberg’s cancellation of the New York Marathon this week. He really did NOT want to do that. But the public outcry was overwhelming, and the mayor heard from virtually every significant city power center that he had no choice but to shut it down and reallocate those resources to disaster relief. So he did. As extreme weather disasters increase in size and frequency, and the media are inundated with images and stories of unbelievable suffering all across the socio-economic-political spectrum, the masses, including wealthy and powerful hard-hit conservatives, will demand a response, and they will get it.
 
5. Everyone Cares about the Survival and Happiness of Their Kids and Grandkids — It won’t matter whether people are conservative, liberal or moderate… When it dawns on everyone that their kids and grandkids may not be able to survive in the future we are setting up for them, everyone will pause. We will all have to ask ourselves why we are working, creating and procreating if there is no future — no civilization to build — no place or time for our children to live and carry on our legacy. We will all realize that it is time to stop and turn this thing around, if only for the sake of future generations.
 
Conservation is a Conservative Value
 
Aside from these five points, conserving the planet really ought to be a natural conservative issue. It seems like leaving our children a planet, climate, oceans, soil and atmosphere at least as healthy as the system we inherited from our ancestors is a smart, conservative thing to do. It’s sort of like investing money for our future financial security. Or maybe a better analogy would be doing due diligence on the maintenance of our house so that we can protect and sustain the investment we have in our home. Earth is the only home we have. The conservative approach would be to maintain our home for the security and wellbeing of future generations. It’s just the common sense responsible thing to do.
 
What’s Next?
 
What’s next? Conservatives, liberals and moderates will join forces and demand with one voice that governments and fossil fuel companies switch as fast as possible from extracting and burning fossil fuels to developing and supporting renewable clean energy sources and lifestyles. Last year Exxon-Mobile made more profit than any company in the history of money, and our government gave them your tax dollars and mine to subsidize that historic windfall, which is killing Mother Nature. Is that okay with you? Of course it’s not. Mother Nature will no longer allow escalating fatal climate change to be a polarizing political issue. This is a matter of life and death for Her, for us, and for our children. It’s time to join hands with our political foes and opposites and force governments and fossil fuel companies to switch to clean renewable energy. Talk it up. Make noise. Write letters to editors. Make art about it. Demonstrate on the streets. 
 
Three Big Things We Can All Do Right Now
 
First: Organize — Join 350.org and Bill McKibben’s efforts to stop climate change, or another group like Citizen’s Climate Lobby, or start your own local organization  to combat climate change in your own region.
 
Second: Boycott — Don’t buy any fossil fuels on Fridays — “Fossil Fuel Free Fridays.”
 
Third: Divest — Remove all your investments from fossil fuel companies, and demand that your churches and colleges and universities and other institutions do the same.
 
Buck up Binky… It’s time to exhibit some courage — It is tempting to feel overwhelmed in the face of humanity’s greatest survival challenge in all of history. “Eco-Anxiety,” denial and avoidance are natural human responses. But we are out of time. There is no time left to pretend that this will just go away. Extreme weather-related disasters, caused by climate change, are increasing rapidly in size and frequency. Many of the actions listed above are easy to do. We can all do them even if we are scared, depressed and overwhelmed. The good news is that governments and companies will be forced to respond even if only 10 — 20% of us join forces and demand change. It is NOT too late. We can do this together — conservatives, liberals and moderates. All together now… SCREAM BLOODY MURDER! Demand an end to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, and a switch to clean renewable energy sources.

EL DIA DE LOS MUERTOS, AND MY 50TH CLASS REUNION

By Paul

I was born on the Day of the Dead, which has always struck me as more than a little odd.  November the 2nd, All Souls Day in the old Catholic tradition which I grew up with, is set aside to celebrate everyone who has died, or at least “all the faithful departed,” as it was said when I was young, since the unfaithful were damned to hell anyway, and there was little reason or need to remember them.

Somehow the notion of being given the gift of life (and it is a great gift!) on the very day dedicated to a special remembrance of death still strikes me as both curious and instructive.  Although as a child I thought of it as strange and a bit disturbing, as an adult, I have come to understand it in more of a mythic or symbolic kind of way.  It’s well known today, for example, that in traditional Mexican culture there has long been a close connection between life and death, and not necessarily a negative one either.  Indeed, almost all cultures which relied on agriculture, as opposed to primarily hunting and gathering, had a special place for death in the stories they told themselves about how to make sense of the world.  Everyone knew that it was only when the seed was buried in the earth that life could begin to stir.  Additionally, it did not take early farmers long to realize that the dead and decaying plants of the year before made excellent fertilizer, the very stuff in fact from which new life grew most abundantly.  So, the equation was a very natural one to make: from death came new life in a most dramatic and tangible way.  

In Aztec mythology too, Mictlantecuhtli, the god of Mictlan, the land of the dead and the lowest region of the netherworld, fought with Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent and bringer of rain, who had descended into Mictlan in order to gather the bones of the ancestors from the previous fourth world in order to make a new creation.  He was just about to escape when Mictlantecuhtli caught up with him, which caused Quetzalcoatl to drop some of the bones.  These bones fell and got smashed, which is why some people are shaped differently from others, and some are smaller, some larger.  The point to be made is that it was necessary to go underground to the abode of the dead in order to create new life.  So once again we see the emergence of these old agricultural myths playing out in the everyday lives of the people.  There is even speculation, as well, that elements of the Christian faith originate from these ancient mythic themes, with Jesus, the Son of God, who died and was subsequently buried in the earth.  New life sprang from him when he rose again from the dead, just as buried seeds do to this day. 

In Celtic mythology, too, we see the celebration of Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”) at this same time of the year.  Samhain was thought of as the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.  It was a time when cattle, those life-giving beasts for the old peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, were slaughtered both as offerings to the gods, and to sustain the people through the long, cold winter months to come. Bonfires were lit, and in some places still are, and the bones of the slaughtered cattle would be burnt therein.  It was also a time when the veil between the two worlds, that of the living and the dead, was considered to be particularly thin, and the dead could come back and walk among the living.  As with Mexicans today, this was not necessarily seen as all that morbid or lugubrious, but instead as a time to reconnect with loved ones who had passed on.  Even so, certain rituals had to be followed very closely, or great harm could come to the living.  The sídhe (pronounced “shee”), those remnants of old Celtic gods now called fairies, were also known to frequent the world of the living on Samhain.  Some of these fairies were not necessarily thought of as all that benevolent, to say the least, and people would sometimes dress up in disguises in order to fool the sídhe into thinking that they were other than who they actually were.  Herein, of course, we see the beginnings of the modern costumes worn on Halloween, which is celebrated the day before All Saints Day (Nov. 1st), and otherwise known as the “Eve of All Hallows,” or “Hallows’ Eve.”  

Much of this mythologizing has become commingled in my mind of late with another event in my life which took place recently.  I returned just this past week to New York in order to attend the 50th reunion of my high school graduating class.  However, to refer to it in this way is actually something of a misnomer, because the group that gathered was much more than classmates who happened to graduate from high school at the same time.  Instead, at age fourteen we had entered into what was then known in the Catholic parlance of the day as a Junior Novitiate, a kind of very strict religious boarding school meant as preparation for entrance into a religious order upon graduation.  This was followed by the Novitiate year, when one takes the robe, as well as a religious name, and becomes a novice.  This is a year of the strictest possible religious discipline.  We kept silence almost all of the time, and spent the majority of our days either in private or communal prayer, or in manual labor.  People still do not believe me when I tell them that I remember digging sumac roots out of the solid, frozen earth in the middle of a snow storm, simply because the Brother Director had told me to do so.  This was known as “holy obedience.” 

Very few of my classmates remained in the religious order I had joined.  Some thirty of us showed up for the reunion, several with their wives, who must have thought us all very odd indeed, and I will admit that, before going, I had some degree of hesitation about attending.  I was wrong to feel any hesitancy, however.  In the end, I rediscovered a very fine group of men, many still Catholic, but some of whom (as I think of it anyway) have now outgrown any need for organized religion.  But all of them have gone on to distinguished careers either in academia, or the sciences, psychology and counseling, the military (perhaps not so surprisingly), journalism, the arts, and in even politics.  The timing of the reunion, so near to the old Celtic New Year of Samhain, or the Mexican Día de los Muertos was, I am sure, accidental.  If you actually believe in accidents, that is.  But it nonetheless made me think of the connection between these kinds of events. 

First of all, there is a way in which all or most of us have, if you will, resurrected into a new life.  We have gone on to create these new forms of ourselves out of defunct monastic ones and made lives which now fit our contemporary individual needs and our own requirement to grow and prosper in ways that corresponded to our talents.  In the process, we learned what we needed to discover both about ourselves and the world around us, a world which, prior to our departure from “religious life” was a thing of mystery, full of anxiety and fear for most of us. 

Having entered upon this life at age fourteen, it is obvious that six or seven or ten years later, when most of us had finally left the confines of monastic life, we knew almost nothing about “the world.”  It was of course a place of wonder and delight for us, as much as it may have caused a degree of trepidation and consternation.  All of the things that boys are supposed to learn during adolescence, how to date, how to work for a salary and make a bit of money, how to travel, to explore, to investigate the world, and especially how to rebel against outside authority and to create one’s own inner authority, all this was new to us.  In that sense, I suppose it could be said that we were, of necessity, late bloomers.  But bloom most of us did, each in his own unique way. 

So, it may have turned out to be quite appropriate that our 50th reunion took place so close to these other events in mythic time that I have mentioned above, when one year is ending and a new one beginning, and when what has died is now celebrated as the beginnings of a new life to come.  Mythology, in this sense, is still very much alive and applicable to our everyday lives.  And maybe it wasn’t so bad after all to have been born on the Day of the Dead, if we think of that day as the ending of one phase, and the subsequent beginning (the resurrecting) of a new one. 

In the end, I am glad that I went back to New York for the reunion.  I did almost, but not quite, get caught in Hurricane Sandy on the way out, but even that can be viewed, if you have a mind to, in a symbolic way.  I had visited my past, and I saw that it was still alive and vibrantly contributing to my present.  And I had seen, too, that I had been able to escape the worst of the roiling, crashing, battering parts of that past, which can cause such damage and destruction in a person’s life.  That, to my mind, is the real meaning of the Day of the Dead, a time when the past rises and contributes in a positive way to the lives we are actually living.  It is a kind of Samhain of the saints, a new year filled with hope, and with a renewed eagerness to go on living, laughing, and creating – always, let us hope, creating.    

 

 

WHY MAKE ART?

by Kevin

Kevin stands in front of his “Earth Rose Window,” made of plastic bottles, displayed in the center city art gallery that will close in several weeks.

Robert and I have decided to close our 2,000 square foot art gallery in center city in a few weeks and move all of our art back to our Barn Art Gallery and studios deep in the woods. We’ve had a good run at the city gallery for the last 18 months, and enjoyed every minute of it, even though we only sold a few paintings. Before that we exhibited 65 big canvases at the new library when it opened two years ago, and they bought six of them to start their permanent collection. That was exhilarating! We also had a good time producing a two-man show for a gallery in a nearby city three years ago, and a local restaurant exhibit last spring led to the sale of two of Robert’s big paintings.

We’ve worked very hard, primarily for visibility, because in recent years there hasn’t been much disposable income that the public was willing to invest in art. We hosted popular open mic music and poetry nights monthly in our center city gallery, often attracting as many as 50 people. But poets and musicians are notoriously poverty-stricken in America, and, of course, they couldn’t buy any art no matter how much they might appreciate it.

We were content to open the art gallery for visibility, but recently we have found ourselves in such a time and money crunch that we have not made any art for months. Our “day jobs” and the upkeep of our 12 wooded acres and many animals and buildings are more than a full time life for both of us, especially when we are devoting evenings and weekends to making art as well. Running the center city art gallery, which initially promoted our art, became counterproductive as it worked to stop our art production. On top of that, the formerly vibrant city art scene seems to have stalled along with the U.S. economy. Local art galleries report that the spring and fall ArtWalks this year were very poorly attended.

“Multiple Personality Disorder,” 33″ x 42″ acrylic on canvas, by Kevin

So… It’s time to retreat to the woods and make art again. YAY! That should be a cause for celebration, right? But I have recently found myself whining about an artistic identity crisis. I’m beginning to come out of that now, but for weeks I’ve been struggling with the question “If art is made in the woods and nobody sees it, does it have a purpose?” (That question is the sequel to “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?)

This soul-searching has been useful in forcing me to decide whether or not communication and social response are an essential part of making art. My decision is “not,” although an occasional reaction beyond apathy would be nice. While art can be very useful, enlightening and helpful to society in all kinds of ways, and it is good if an artist’s work makes her or him feel a sense of connection and purpose in society, such functions are not essential to the intrinsic value of art as a vocation for the artist. The minimum requirement for being an artist is making art. Sharing it is optional.

The urge to create art is as fundamental for an artist as the urge to eat or have sex or pray. And when an artist does not create, there are eventually negative effects just as there are for any individual who abstains from eating or having sex for too long, and for some of us when we don’t meditate or pray. Art is the vehicle through which the artist is integrated with the material, psychological and spiritual world. Without making art, the artist is “disintegrated” and alienated from the world. Artists intensely desire union with all that is. Our love affairs and efforts to merge with the world lead us into creative processes that make us pregnant with the art to which we ultimately give birth.

“Something Was Happening in the Sky,” 11″ x 14″ acrylic on canvas, by Kevin

The fundamental function of integration that art fulfills for the artist physically, psychologically and spiritually is not dependent upon society. It does not require that anybody beyond the artist sees or responds to the art. While such responses are usually desired by artists as gratifying, challenging or stimulating experiences, and certainly necessary to art commerce, they must not to be confused with the artist’s internal process of integration through art with physical, psychological and spiritual reality.

In fact, societal reactions to art can significantly warp the integration process and even impede it. Artists who become very successful in selling one particular style or subject matter in their art, often find themselves enslaved to that success and unable to evolve and move beyond it to new forms and subjects. Artists who are rejected or fail to sell their work to an indifferent public, wonder unnecessarily what is wrong with their art and think of themselves as failures, rather than focusing on the successful integration their art has afforded them into their private physical, psychological and spiritual realities.

Art is not a talk show or a political debate or a marketplace. It is a private and personal practice like sex and dietary habits and meditation. Many artists choose not to show their work to anyone at all, or they show it to only a few trusted loved ones, because they know that this very private soul expression and exploration is fragile and can be damaged by public response which is often ignorant and cruel. If an artist has a strong ego and can withstand the rigors of public reaction and enjoy the resulting dialogue then s/he may choose to go beyond creation and into communication of art.

“I Miss Smokin’ SOooo Much!” digital print by Kevin

Commercialization or monetization of art — the attempt to promote and sell it — is a third and entirely separate category beyond private creation and communication of art. My hat is off to any artist who is so brave and bold as to proclaim that s/he will make a living by selling art. In this day and age in America that is a very hard path to follow. I do not recommend it, and while I have sold a fair amount of my art, I have steadfastly refused to require it to support me, preferring instead to raise money for food and rent by working in other jobs. I have never wanted my art to be influenced and changed by the marketplace. I like yellow and purple and bright colors. I don’t want to leave blazing hues, nudes or controversial subjects out of my art just because I know that they don’t sell as well as more neutral tones, hidden human forms and safe subject matter. I cannot allow my art to be dictated by lowest common denominators, because then it wouldn’t be my art.

Recently I spoke with a young sculptor who is supporting himself by selling his large metal sculptures. He has sold his work so successfully that he had to cancel a one-man show because all of his inventory sold out before the show opened! I asked him what his secret was. He replied, “I decided to ask what people really want and give them that.” So, of course, I asked him what people really want. He said, “Sunflowers and dandelions.”

Understandably, this young sculptor may have abandoned his own vision and personal expression in favor of making sunflowers and dandelions so that he can eat and pay rent. Now, I have nothing at all against sunflowers and dandelions. Van Gogh’s sunflowers are utterly sublime, as are the tall wonders themselves that grow in nature and provide us with beauty and delicious seeds. And I find dandelions magical and beautiful. It is more than possible to make authentic art with sunflowers and dandelions as subjects. But I’m guessing the real subjects for this young sculptor were groceries and rent, and his motivation was money – not personal integration or expression.

Some artists have been lucky enough to be born into flourishing societies that appreciate art and culture and have the luxury of supporting those pursuits during a time of economic prosperity. In such happy circumstances it is certainly possible for artists of all stripes to support themselves with their true vocation, while expressing their visions authentically and not merely shaping them to societal tastes. In many parts of America today, at a time when 23% of U.S. children are growing up in poverty and too many people are unemployed and hungry, buying authentic art is not a public priority. How could it be? Artists are therefore faced with a choice – We must tailor our art to the tastes of the wealthy or support ourselves with a “day job” and do our art as and when we can.

Many friends and acquaintances have said to me over the years, “Follow your dream! You are an artist. Quit that day job and do what you love. Become your true self!” I completely agree that I have to make art or I will sink into despair and dysfunction. Art is like food, water and oxygen to me. It grounds me in my own physical, psychological and spiritual being. When I don’t make art I become disenchanted and unbalanced. But I like to eat, too, and at least in the winter it’s nice to have a roof over one’s head. I’m not willing to stop making the authentic art that may disturb some people in favor of sunflowers and dandelions that might please the public but leave me gasping for air. So I’ll keep my “day job” for now, thank you, and pray that Social Security is still there in a few years.

Meanwhile, I’ve changed my mind about public response to art. In the past I’ve always said that both praise and condemnation were fine with me, and the only response I could not tolerate was apathy. Well… that declaration has now been tested and found false. Outside of a handful of very close and supportive friends, by far the most common response I get to my art these days is indifference. Often it seems that people don’t see it at all and I wonder if it has become invisible. For a while I was very bothered by this, but suddenly I find myself at peace. I don’t have to worry about whether or not my art elicits a satisfying scolding or gratifying congratulations. I now have the extreme luxury and pleasure of making art privately, in the peaceful solitude of the woods. This is a wonderful gift!

“Apple Man,” 3 ft x 4 ft oil on canvas by Kevin

I seem to have to remind myself every now and then to enjoy art as a solitary vocation, whether or not there is any public response. About 30 years ago I dreamt about a wondrous baseball tree and awoke with the following poem fully formed in my mind. I read it frequently when I find myself forgetting that art is a very private matter:

THE BASEBALL TREE

by Kevin

Have you ever seen a baseball tree

all covered with ripe juicy baseballs?

          Some of them are so ready

          they burst at the seams

          and ooze red through the stitches.

 

Those are the good ones to eat.

White and plump outside – bulging leather cheeks.

          Tear the stitches loose;

          catch the running juice;

          and feast on red flesh,

 

quivering and flashing in the moonlight

like a rare sea creature emerging from the shell.

          Ripe baseballs are very sweet

          like the reddest cactus pears

          of a Santa Catalina summer.

 

One warm night I found an excellent baseball tree

resplendent with painfully ripe, sweet fruit,

          splitting and spilling in the moonlight –

          glistening red flesh

          weeping to be eaten.

 

Overjoyed, I gathered many prize baseballs

as offerings for my beloved brothers,

          to show them loving respect

          and share the secret pleasures

          of my moonlit baseball tree.

 

But they would not eat my ready gift.

They looked strange and afraid and amused.

          They had not heard

          that baseballs are delicious

          as well as practical.

 

I myself ate several, to show them

baseballs are cactus-sweet and harmless.

          My brothers turned away

          shaking their heads

          with concern and disgust.

 

But in truth, I am sadly pleased

to go to my secret baseball tree alone

          on warm summer nights –

          sweet moonlit nights –

          and eat peacefully.