Thankful

I have always believed in the existence of two worlds.

First, there was the one for which the blame could be placed at humanity’s feet. It is messy, contentious, sometimes graceless, oftentimes not. Its gears wheeze like a quarrelsome factory.

The other world is the natural one – the verdant, growing and once the only one – that began millennia before man made his debut, his awkward challenge. This is the world that witnessed battalions of formless creatures crawling out of the sea, gasping before their gills disappeared forever.

Now, I find much in our combative world that disappoints; the things that bear the scar of mankind’s twisted humor. This year has been bloated with its indignities.

But to despair, to complain is foolish: for the other, older, world waits outside. All it asks of you is one sense – sight, touch, scent, taste, hearing – in order to share its manifold gifts. It asks that you look at the stars, touch the earth, smell its growing life, taste the air, listen to the beguiling animals.

Can one world outweigh the other? I think so. Nature has her clever ways. Her wit and creativity, her ever-busy mind, will always be an encouragement and an inspiration.

So what can you be thankful for on November 24? Or on any day? Has mankind let you down? Then look to the lady spinning her wonders outside, and she will comfort you.

Then go inside and eat a hearty dinner.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Silks

“Silks” – postcards framing squares of silk decorated with silk embroidery – were graceful communiques that were popular during a graceless and ugly quartet of years, 1914-1918.  They originated in France and Belgium and disappeared shortly after the Armistice, their fey romantic prettiness no longer needed.

Soldiers passed their bloody and shaking hands over the soft prisms – the colored threads that formed flowers and flags.  The patriotism was a comfort, a sentimentality that seeped through their fingers like new blood.  Thus encouraged, they scribbled a few sentences and mailed their cards home, soaring like iridescent birds to a home front that waited with clasped hands.

I own a few of these icons of loneliness.  One bears the badge of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.  The years, “1914 – 15 – 1916”, indicate that the card was sent in 1916.  Or perhaps the soldier was being optimistic, thinking to add the war’s span of years, from beginning to end. The silk is spotted, the embroidered knots are coming undone, but the stitching is still intact.  It traces the motto of the regiment “Quo Fas Et Gloria Ducunt” (Where Right And Glory Lead).  Draped across the howitzer is a banner quoting “Ubique” (Everywhere).

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The artillery was a key element of the British arsenal.  But to be important in battle also means being a target.  Kings, bannermen, gunners.  During World War I, over 49,000 members of the RA died.  This soldier would have been in the thick of it – each detachment composed of 5 or 6 men, working in an awful harmony to prime and fire their laborious gun.  If he worked a trench mortar, he would have some protection, if a howitzer of 18-pounder, he was out in the open.

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I hope this fellow made it through the war, settled into a comfortable life, embraced a family full of compassion and understanding.  But at the same time I hope he never forgets the sodden trenches, the filth, the stench, the months of boredom, the minutes of staggering fear; the muddy clouds of Ypres, the deadly sun of the bombardment on the Somme:  the kaleidoscope of war.  I hope he had the strength to accept this mosaic of memories, despite their ability to savage the emotions like wolves.  I hope he was able to live with the grief, yet to have the strength to cry, silently so, as he watched future generations march to their own wars.

In 1925 The Artillery Memorial was unveiled at Hyde Park Corner, dedicated to the casualties the Regiment suffered in ‘The Great War’. Whomever the man was who sent this lovely card, I hope he lived to accompany his family to their annual excursion to the memorial, that he could see his silhouette as well as those of his comrades in the bronze statues and stone reliefs.

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I hope he was not a memory, carried like a postcard in a pocket, as they lay their bouquets of blood at its base every November 11.

Surf Dad

Grebes are a type of bird – oddly proportioned, graceless on land, they live most of their lives at sea, like sailors.  They hunt by diving into the water, flying through the depths, soaring between the currents.  Their legs are placed far back on their bodies, to propel these aquatic hunts, but making walking difficult. And in flight they should be embarrassed.

Boyfriend and I see them quite often.  Unafraid of every wave’s swell, often diving into them, which is more than I’m willing to do.  The types we see are typically sized – small to medium – arching their necks as if they were for all the world sea-bound swans.  These necks are black and white.  Their bills are yellow.  Their eyes are red.  We are always glad to see them.

A couple of weekends ago, I was standing on a rock, monitoring Boyfriend’s surfing exploits with our camera.  It can get dull between rides, so my attention will stray.  I had seen an adult pair of grebes earlier, red-eyed and companionable.

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Now, I saw what I thought was a wayward scud of foam to my distant right.  But as I watched, it seemed to disengage itself and start swimming against the tide.  To my delight I realized that it was a ‘raft’  (a group of grebes) of young grebes, possibly thirteen in all.  They were just about grown out of their down, but the adult coloration had not established itself yet.  They swam in a ragged line, diving into the waves, bobbing over them, coming dangerously close to the rocks.  I feared for their little lives.  The world needs more sea birds.

These little ones were being weaned from their parents – possibly the two I had seen earlier, free at last.  But these tiny youths might still have needed a parental figure, and were willing to accept any port in a storm.

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Poems for Autumn

Most decidedly, this is a most un-autumn like season. Eighty-five degrees today, what an insult. So, to make myself feel better, I have two autumn poems.

A Twisting Almanac

Like a charcoal colored sea
The night rippled with cold
And I felt on its muscular currents
An unseen armada
Harbingers of the harvest
Of fields bowed to the scythe’s curve
Of twilight’s claws drawn across noontime’s skin
And the equinox arched like a cat across the sky

The wind worried the trees
And from its feral grip
Fell a crisp rain of jagged leaves
That coiled in the wind
And then rose in a helix
Tracing their autumnal DNA,
The cycle of kaleidoscope seasons,
To the distant spark that kindled their beginnings

Fruitful Debris

A broken mosaic
Confused as a shattered puzzle
A pink and cherry bower
That crumbled and nibbled at my feet
Crisp and familiar
Like a cat
My shoes stirred
Beneath the brittle fabric
They pushed at the jagged facets
Of the harvest colored prism
The withered reminders
Of nature’s insistence
That her beauty survives
Even when death
And the photosynthetic drought
Wreaths the ground
With its bloodless garlands

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Nouveau-Riche

Like a frothy lady-in-waiting, Art Nouveau emerged as the handmaiden to the Belle Epoch, following in its honeyed footsteps.  Dainty yet flamboyant, it was born out of a madness of grace and unceasing charm.  It mocked symmetry, the foolhardy composition suppressed by balance and proportion.  It was not classic, nor serene – it burst forth in a chaos of beauty, coiling with the whimsy of nature; her spectacular mirth.

It could be seen everywhere during the careless years before the Great War; rich with lethargy and leisure.  It was carved into frescoes of gardens rooted into walls, blossoming into curls so elaborate, they grew into a joyous caricature of the growing, earthy world:

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Jewelry was twisted into bowers of serpents and insects, ornate with gems and enameled hues that rippled like watercolor.

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The faces of women loomed from the depths of moonstone and opal; they hung like stars from frameworks of woven gold.

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Medusas shrieked from engraved combs; gods and goddesses ruled, bold and inalienable, from pendants, brooches and collars.

Art Nouveau was seen in the filigrees that romped throughout architecture, illustration, textiles, silverware, clothing.  Every aspect of the decorative life became a tangle of coils, twisting like ribbons of DNA.   Small Victorian modesty was replaced by the fluidity of Nature’s world, the richness of her seasons, the shameless appreciation of her power.

At no other time would Mucha’s women appear on posters with their hair melting into russet and gold tinted oceans…

or would Cheret be able to paint dancers in a torrent of petticoats and color.

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It was the time of absinthe spoons, their tiny bowels a matrix of wrought silver only large enough to embrace a cube of sugar.

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The silken lilies curling down the velvet-clad back of the Countess of Greffulhe, her shoulders and neck emerging from the sculpted collar like a living flower, is an iconic image of an era that celebrated the soft beauty of pure decoration.

The era meandered like an autumn river, rich with color and earthy detritus, following a path of nascent creativity.  Portraits of its fortunate inhabitants were painted with swift brushstrokes, before the wandering, busy imaginations of the subjects called them away.  The harsh linearity of previous decades was eschewed:  gowns, coats, even the liquid shine on patent leather shoes:  no aspect could bear to be harnessed by clarity.  Painters like Sargent…

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and Boldini…

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portrayed their sitters in a bedlam of shifting colors; of gowns swirling like hurricanes, of faces as clear yet as hard to define as reflections in a turbulent sea.  Like Narcissus, they were in love with those reflections, yet on the precipice of an approaching danger.

At first the menace was only a subtle threat.  It was seen in the smudged eyes of Klimt’s portraits; his jagged mosaics that felt like a chain mail of disillusionment.

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It beckoned from Schiele’s figures, sprawled on tangled sheets; the oblique limbs relegated to a coarse reality that presaged the death of sentimentality.

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Yet the Beautiful Age would linger for a while; its gilded culture pulsating and changing shape like a jellyfish – only to sting the onlooker before he turned away.  But its death came; and it was only as a herald to countless more deaths, beginning with a distant assassination in the summer of 1914. When British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” he no doubt was referring to the darkness of impending despair, the inevitable destruction of war, but surely, he must have given a thought to the end of the golden world which was all he had ever known.  He must have known the fear of ugliness which had begun its approach in an apocalyptic gallop.

But this joyous life, as enchanted as a flower, was not meant to last long.  Rather, it was destined for the memory, where the regret of losing its fey beauty would linger like perfume; where that perfect world could be safely buried and the earthy spirit of Art-Nouveau would live forever.

 

Waves of Panic

It didn’t last for long.  But for the briefest of moments, the ocean’s surface had begun to buzz, bubble and boil – like a cauldron’s substance, sprinkled with green salt and membranes of kelp.

Breaking through the surface were the bodies of fish, their muscles and spines contracting in uncontrolled leaps, their efforts evaporating in the air before they fell, helpless, back into the toothsome waters.  Their panic was anarchic; a school of bedlam.

Danger surrounded the little fish.  Danger sought them.  The sense of the coiling progress of a hunter, its quiet and bloody hunger, pricked their nerves into a scintillating panic.  Their only means of escape was a quick, confused leap into the suffocating air followed by a helpless collapse into the sea’s watery embrace.

The fish repeated their chaotic vaulting – the ocean’s surface was dimpled with the tracks of their frenzied attempts.  Instinct told them that the aerated arc above them was their only hope of escape although their gills fluctuated and gagged at every contact with the arid tides of barren molecules.

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But suddenly the air was torn apart by an approaching mayhem. As it drew closer it was heralded by cries that were sharp and pitched, by feathers that wandered into the froth – soft, curling messengers that presaged a secondary slaughter.  Like an armada the color of dusk, they floated on tiny, aimless journeys before sinking – to warn a terrified, submerged population.

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And just as the cries became shrieks, the water was assaulted by all the tools of hunger.  Screaming avian jaws lanced the surface of the water like needles perforating a quilt.  In a tumult of competition gulls, cormorants, shearwaters and terns plunged their faces into the ocean, their sharpened beaks an affront to the watery, fish-frenzied world.

And then just as suddenly, it was over.  The anarchy of the waves became serene; the muddle of violence was silenced.  The sky was unpopulated:  the dialogue of birds became a distant murmur, hidden in the pockets of salt and fog.  The predatory fish, sated and sleepy, sank into dark grottoes thick with alloys of green and coral.  As for the rest, the panicked prey, all that remained was a scent of oil and blood in the water and a silent flurry of scales beginning a slow descent:  witness to the terrible plan Nature had in store for them.

 

You Can’t Deny A Whim

I’m not used to drawing with pastels.  But I had a whim, so…just don’t harsh Aubrey out, please.

 

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What I Brought Home

Summer comes hurtling towards earth on its heated equinox, an axis brought to a boil over months that travel at a fierce, flaming gallop.  Their intense progress swirls the sky into a seething panic.  And on its first day, the sun will bear night and day aloft at equal height, as Justitia holds the scales of justice.  The hours share the benefits of the new season, before autumn begins to claw its way towards its dark, harvest dominance.

I would venture out into the early summer evening, to watch the changing sky, the skeins of evaporating clouds, the caramel sun.  But when I returned, the only souvenirs I had were the constellations of mosquito bites on my arms and legs.  There was a cache of stars inside my elbow; burning recollections.  As I walked, I felt as if the remnants of that angry, heated day were seared into my skin…as if I carried shards of moons and stars back into my home.

Mother-Of-Pearl

I had a grain of sand caught in my eye. For days it nestled between cornea and eyelid, a microscopic foreigner buried in its viscous confines. For days my eye was as irritated as an oyster that feels the initial birth pangs of its pearl, the hoodlum particle invading its soft flesh.

The pain increased, spreading beyond my eyelashes, pooling in the corner like a red shadow – all of the physiological consequences of a battle with an unwanted object. My eye felt as rough and dry as the hide of a mollusk. I waited for it to glaze over with nacre, for the hazel-colored iris to turn iridescent: opaque with lavender and turquoise. I waited for my vision to be awash with the ocean, its incandescent light challenging the reflections and refractions of my new eye.

The act of blinking became difficult – as if the stubborn child was grating against the ceiling of the lid: a crib too small for its subtle growth. Every time the grating pain returned, I wondered at the strata of translucence that layered my infant gem. The pain wasn’t curved, but jagged: perhaps my pearl wasn’t round; but malformed, Baroque. Such stones were rare, impossible to match: they were not used for necklaces, to be threaded with a string of equals. They were singular, their bodies used in brooches: as the hull of a ship; the torso of a god. My pearl was going to be unique.

But one day my eye began to water. And in the belly of one of those tears the infant grain escaped. It traveled a smuggler’s way down the cartography of wrinkle and jaw. The saline tracks curled down my face like the footstep of a snail. Then, in a fit of forgetfulness and annoyance, I brushed the tear away

No matter. I would have been a terrible mother.

The Three Sisters

The sisters were bored. Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak had grown weary of their life in the sky, caught in the luminous circle of Orion’s belt: an existence of being mere accessories to an ancient, hunting constellation.

And to make matters worse, every October they observed, like envious astronomers, the descent of the Orionid meteor shower. They watched the bright veil bound for parts unknown: the blue and green planet that patiently awaited the radiant visitation.

Repeatedly they begged the night sky’s very patient empress – for the moon was surrounded by stars of varying ages, and had grown used to their supplications – if they might not just once be included in the festivities, just to see what the flamboyant illumination was all about. Surely Orion could look after his silly buckle and sword by himself.

Though the meteor shower never seemed to return, and despite the moon’s tedious explanations of atmospheres and ozones and burning dust, making the sisters wild with impatience – Alnitak actually swelled into a supergiant in her annoyance, threatening her figure – their opportuning continued.

Finally, weary of their tiny voices bouncing off latitudes and longitudes, traveling through endless light-years, the moon gave in.

On their given day of release, the sisters began their journey downward. They noticed the change in the air – its shape and texture: becoming thinner, harsher. Instead of the soft unchanging shadows at the top of the sky, they saw rushing by them a prism of colors: cobalt, turquoise, lavender, emerald, tangerine, bronze, cherry, ivory. They thrilled at the swift-moving kaleidoscope.

But this wasn’t the only change that the stars noticed. The moon, ever considerate of her wayward children, made sure that the stars’ arrival would be no cause for alarm. The stars would not crash into the earth with an undignified thump, to be left wallowing in the depths of their personal craters. And as they were promised a jaunt amongst humanity, they were given the shapes of women. And since they were the daughters of the lunar queen, they were given royal status: the three sisters became princesses. Finally, feeling creative and compassionate, the moon also made them impossibly beautiful. Their flesh became as fragrant as tinted power, their cheeks, fingertips and elbows were touched with rouge, their lips were as soft as honey. Their substance was made from the delicate wreckage of a ladies boudoir.

They journeyed through histories and centuries. Their gowns and veils swirled about their bodies and faces like galaxies. This irony was not lost on them and they made a note to thank their clever mother for her wit as soon as they returned. Mintaka, at least, the most distant and introverted of the sisters, intended on keeping this promise.

They had a lovely time. The irresponsibility, the freedom from the astrological maps embedded in the charcoal-colored firmament…the earth was such a lovely place. But then they discovered something else.

It made a rushing, cold sound that vibrated beneath their feet. There was a sense of movement, of hidden life – of a foreign world made of silver, salt and scales: if they knew what those things were.

Beyond curious, they once again asked to be shown one more new world. Beyond annoyed, the moon listened…but to the sisters’ surprise she quickly agreed upon realizing the nature of their request. So a basket was fashioned for the girls to delicately step into – and they were softly lowered from the green bluffs onto the gentle, sighing ocean.

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And they enjoyed themselves mightily. The pale horizon, the glitter of shark’s teeth and fishes’ breath beneath the water, the kelp forests, the tireless birds, the grottos made of pearls and coral. They could have floated aimlessly forever.

They did not realize that the moon had a plan. For she was ruler of the oceanic rhythms: every time she had a whim to do so, she would cast a silken line rigged with invisible hooks and pull the tides towards her. And on the evening when Orion’s complaints got to be too much- something about a lack of embellishments – the moon, as well as catching the tide, made sure that she secured the sisters’ floating basket as well.

As a result, on that night the tide was unusually high…and stargazers were amazed to see a trio of stars actually ascending, until they returned to their homes, becoming the stationary jewels decorating Orion’s belt once more.