Thursday, January 31, 2008


Creation, or the love of spaces filled.

There is something about being at the beginning of a New Year that inspires me to go back to the very beginning. Like, Genesis 1. This time, I was struck by the Creator's delight in filling spaces with life. Faced with an empty canvas -“without form and void” - He first delineated the zones. Stretches out the horizons, sets up proper work lighting to govern the project, commands that these blank white spaces be filled. And we're talkin' really full.

“Let the waters swarm,” and sea creatures dove deep, smaller fishes fluttering out and tucking themselves into every available nook and cranny of the underwater world.

“Let birds fly above,” and not one corner of the expansive sky was untouched by feather-tips and the joyful swooping of new wings.

Another corner of the workshop deals with clays and muds. “Let the earth bring forth living creatures,” and His command causes the earth to bear beasts and reptiles and dinosaurs and every possible incarnation of life that is bound by gravitational decree to their origins. “And God made the beasts.”

Finally, one last glorious creature to be sculpted with His own hand. Someone in His own image. A reflection of His eternal authority and dominion, but limited to the created earth. Mankind. Man is not only physical matter, helping to fill in the gaps of God’s joyous, swarming created world - he is spiritual. The filling of space takes on an dimension beyond that of the material.

And what is the command to the trembling throng, to all of those flocks, schools, herds, packs, bands, troops, colonies, armies, prides, mobs, hives, litters, bevies, rookeries, droves, warrens, broods, and pods? Above all, to man and woman with their gentle rule?

“Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth!”

Anti-creation - the love of spaces empty.

In striking contrast to all I imagined above, the current trends in art seem to witness to a certain horror, or at least avoidance, of swarming life. Everything is clean lines, empty spaces. I heard that during the birth of Impressionism, the artists (especially Renoir) pushed for a change in exhibition style. Traditionally, the Salon stacked paintings that were shown one right on top of the other. Renoir insisted on space – he wanted each work of art to gain individual attention. Aesthetically, this was an undeniably welcome change; the old way was confusing to the eye and too busy. But I wonder. Was it perhaps witnessing to certain follies and philosophies that came to fruition later?

As in now. When I visit the Pompidou, for example, where the enormous amounts of space are remarkable. You have to travel a long journey from one installation to another. When we reach it, it is often just another representation of empty space. Don't get me wrong - there are parts of this funky place that I find very satisfying. But the stretches of nothing are not one of them. I feel the same way when I traipse over to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to study a few times a week. There is a similar thought process laid the foundations here. The award-winning building is simply clean, stark lines, surrounding long stretches of….nothing. There are hedges, but they are contained within cages. I don't have any photos to prove it to you for the moment, but I am not kidding. Cages.

Is this just a question of style, or is something deeper going on here? I mean, I don't intend to make a moral judgment on aesthetics. But if art is reflecting life in this case...what kind of life is it? Or is it life at all?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Other of the Two Cities

London has existed in my mind since about the age of six. My parents took a trip over the ocean and brought back a tiny mounted guard with a funny hat, a little red double-decker bus, a medallion with my name on it (and, oddly enough, some other guy named "Westminster"), and the habit of clotted cream with tea. Later on, I peopled this Great City in my mind with characters out of Dickens, Mary Poppins, and Arthur Conan Doyle. You can imagine the motley crew - Julie Andrews dancing with Oliver Twist all over Kensington Gardens, while a gentleman by the name of "Westminster" strolls by with a big, fat cigar in his mouth. Around the corner, an angular figure who suspiciously looks like Sherlock Holmes keeps a vigilant watch on the whole lot of them.

Well, the stories are all true. And here are some more.

First, there was rain. And (so I've been told) as only London can produce. Mainly, wet shoes and umbrellas fighting for street corner space. When we occasionally tilted our heads skywards and caught a glimpse beyond our hat brims - what a surprise! Rather than the rows of stately "Haussmann-ized" buildings that usually frame our viewpoint on Paris, London seemed an endless supply of fascinating architectural odds and ends shoved together, as if we'd stumbled into a colorful antique shop. The old and the very old and the new all piled in corners, waiting to be discovered. Still, having puddles up around our ankles seemed less and less adventuresome and more and more of a bother. Just when we were about ready to break down and splurge on galoshes, we fell upon the shining door of the Waldorf Hilton. This seemed as good a place as any to air out out our sodden selves, and what do you know? Two of our friends and their small son happened to be occupying the very same hotel...and room. Yes, serendipity is a beautiful thing. And when it comes to the Cox family, planning is even better.

But before we dwell on the sweet reunion of like souls, there are a few details about the afternoon that must not be forgotten. The sun breaking through the windows at St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, while a young girl masterfully ordered a Brahms concerto to come forth from the instrument cradled on her shoulder. Waltzing in and out of the National Gallery of Art, with its seemingly endless rooms rich in Dutch painters, Rubens, and others. Being awkwardly chased around Whitehall court during the changing of the Queen's Life Guard, where a swaggering, vociferous man proudly issues changing orders once a day. I wonder - did he dream about that job as a boy? He seemed to enjoy it well enough. Popping through the passageway to St. James' Park, filled with diving ducks, elegant swans, and more - a regular aviary.

The angle of the sun told us that we'd better reconvene with our travel partners. Sure enough, they had made some vague adjustments to the new time zone and were ready to stumble out and pursue the object of tasty comestibles. Ah! The Seven Stars. A stone's throw away brought us to this cozy pub, where hot meat pies were packed away with all speed and washed down with glorious pints of. Cheers, Ben and Karl. Of course, a veritable avalanche of conversation ensued. Greatly encouraged, we turned down our beds for the night.

On day two, the umbrellas stayed home. Basically, we sauntered up and down Fleet Street from down till dusk...and beyond. First, St. Bride's Church captured our affections straightaway with its quiet courtyard and fascinating history as the "publisher's" church. Soon afterwards, the domed outline of St. Paul's cathedral appeared in view. While impressive, it seemed less reflective of a place of worship than the first. But we did enjoy the view from as we had our first cup o' tea in jolly old England. (And yes, there was clotted cream.)

Regarding holy places, another thought-provoking sight was the garden we found built upon the remains of a small church, with topiaries and such indicating the original columns. Karl's question: why not worship out-of-doors? And by golly, who says we weren't?

Soon the lunch hour had us running after double-decker buses to try and catch up with Ben, Sasha, and Creighton for the remains of the day. We towered over the busy streets from the upper deck and got a superb view of the truly recognizable monuments against the crisp backdrop of a chilly winter day. Grandeur and clean lines.

Just as the sun lowered and the lights on Big Ben began to dimly glow, Sasha and I decided that it was teatime. And everything must come to a halt for this all-important hour. Diving into the dank, serpentine passages of the Tube, we came out in the funky, Notting Hill area, where supposedly a certain "Tea Palace" welcomed lovers of the leaf. After asking around a bit, we finally attained to the coveted destination. The best way to describe this place was understated but generous, unpretentious but still awfully proud of the tea. I lolled my tongue over a bit of Lapsang Formosa and lazily pondered which finger sandwich to begin with. Ahh. (And yes, there was clotted cream.)

Upon our arrival back at the hotel, we found that the boys had come down with a severe case of cabin fever in our absence. Without further ado, we set ourselves loose on the London night, in search of music, ale, and whatever else might suit our fancy. The five of us eventually curled up with pints in a corner of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese - a haunt of Dickens and the gentleman below, who seemed to sum up so well my melancholy upon leaving the following morning:

“You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” - Samuel Johnson, 1777

*Many thanks to Ben, Sasha, and Creighton, who let us crash in their hotel room, and without whom this trip would have not been nearly as jolly. Hint: see Sasha's blog for more stories!*

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung. It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter, When half spent was the night.

As we wended our way through this Christmas and the last winding stretch of road of the year of our Lord 2007, a particular image seemed imprinted on a good many of our activities. I should warn you. I am a great lover of symbolism, and try to catch things in the act of signifying as often as possible. For example, a piece of fennel from my salad is the Christmas star. Of course it is. But if I hadn't been a Christian, I probably would have been a unbearably superstitious person. Thankfully, the Lord had mercy on this soul, and my flights of fancy are pinned to a greater Backdrop. They might try to wiggle, escape, or flutter away from time to time, but just end up dragging the eternal dropcloth with them, bringing an immediate and palpable excitement to the ancient Story.

(By the way, if you ever see a writer capitalizing words willy-nilly, beware. They might be a symbol-lover. )

Well, as it turns out, everything came up roses. My handmade decorations, the choice of music Karl played in church, a chilly and beautiful walk through a park, and most of all - a newfound joy in each other. "Christmas came early," I said one day. It was true. The past few months had been a difficult readjustment to life together in small, sometimes lonely and frustrating spaces. A pervasive bad mood was hanging like a sheet of blank white sky and we both hunkered down and prayed for a change in the weather. I remember several Advent Sundays singing "disperse the gloomy clouds of night"and really meaning it. And then came the response: a sudden, spontaneous, and (almost) inexplicable compulsion to "love one another". We opened many beautiful presents on Christmas morning, but this early gift was our favourite. A rose amid the cold of winter.

And so, fitfully humming strains of old and faithful hymns, we arose early on Christmas Eve morning and decided to go Somewhere New for a walk. The Parc de Belleville had acquired something of mythic proportions in my head (no surprise there), mainly for its role in the classic film Le Ballon Rouge. To get there, you have to walk through the area of Belleville, which has a twin in our own neighborhood, both being large concentrations of Asian populations. But this is really the only thing they have in common - otherwise, a whole other world. The signs in Chinese characters, though still a mystery to us, were strangely familiar in these hills on the north end of Paris. Up, up, up we climbed the steep streets, colorful and kooky, where rooftops meet the street half a block down, and a pile of garbage looks poetical. It is hard to tell where the graffiti ends and the murals commissioned by the city begin.

Following the signs to the parc, we suddenly found ourselves taking in a stunning view of the city of Paris, softened by the rays of cold light glancing over the hillside in a strange, wintery way. "La lumiere d'hiver" is legendary in its beauty, refracted through the particles of pollution which blanket the city. Armed with sweaters, yogurt, and biscuits, we basked in the pale sun and speculated about the identities of ghostly spires and building frames on the horizon. Next, a quick jaunt through the paths during which I mindlessly gathered two winter rosebuds, and we were soon down on "ground level" again. We looked back up. Something about the angle of the light and the angle of the park made it a deliciously disorienting experience.

Why not a stop at a cafe? Elbows on the bar, we politely said bonjour to the lady sitting next to us - a blonde in a full-length furcoat with a cigarette making curly-cues, which approached ever so often the wry mouth. A mouth that had seen everything. Forty-five minutes later, we were still idly scraping the residue from the bottom of our cups of the best coffee in Paris and listening wide-eyed to her stories about the Chinese mafia. Later on, plenty of complaints about the upcoming smoking ban: "Zeese are ze last days of freedom!" You just never know what a friendly hello will get you into.

Indeed. Later on that day, we donned Paris blacks and browns (so festive) and made our way to Christ-mass. S. Padre Pio is a tiny oratoire at the very northern edge of Paris where an ancient and benevolent Italian priest leads the few but faithful. Karl's friendly manner had landed him a gig here, backing up a soprano on a few songs. Or that's what he thought at first. It turned out that they wanted him to play the entire service, complete with Kyries , Glorias and Credos! He was given some of the music, but with no measure markings and no guarantee of key. As the task ahead grew more and more formidable, memories of a music history test came to his unlikely aid. That, with many whispered directions and a few standard hymns in his back pocket for the occasional lull, he found his way through the humming, smoky jungle. Granted, it was a Christmas mass never heard before and probably never to be heard again, but the priest was sweet and thankful. It was good to be with fellow worshipers of Christ in such a fascinating atmosphere. At one point, the congregants were invited to come up and kiss the feet of the baby Jesus. As I approached, I watched His little face. A perfect rosebud mouth.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere; True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us, And lightens every load.