Sunday, August 25, 2013

House on Fire

Zen Master Linji
Something I enjoy very much is reading with the windows open, seeing the light and feeling the breeze, and hearing trees moving in the breeze or children playing outside or birds singing. Maybe sipping some wine too. I'll pause in my reading, look out the windows, and get this sudden feeling of deep, deep happiness. I don't need to do anything. Although I'm very alert, there's no need to analyze or plan or think. I just sit there and soak in the moment like it's a warm bath. This is when I am the most happy.

Sometimes there also is a sadness that creeps into these moments. I'll suddenly think how the moment must pass. Light will fade, warmth will pass as winter comes, windows will have to close, children will grow up, trees will die, and so will I.  Everything eventually ends. It seems terrible that so much life and beauty should be so temporary. It doesn't dilute the moment for me, but the reaction always struck me as curious.

Years ago, I found a wonderful book called Zen Essence: The Science of Freedom edited by translator Thomas Cleary. It contained insights Cleary pulled from the writings of various Zen masters over time.  There is one from Zen Master Linji (? - 866 CE) that encapsulated and spoke about my feeling of sadness about the impermanence of things:

There is no stability in the world; it is like a house on fire. This is not a place where you can stay for a long time. The murderous demon of impermanence is instantaneous, and it does not choose between the upper and lower classes, or between the old and the young. 
If you want to be no different from the buddhas and Zen masters, just don't seek externally.  The pure light in a moment of awareness in your mind is the Buddha's essence within you. The non-discriminating light in a moment of awareness in your mind is the Buddha's wisdom within you. The undifferentiated light in a moment of awareness in your mind is the Buddha's manifestation within you.

All things around us are on fire, on fire with impermanence. They - and we - will all die away or end. All that they can give us or that we have is this moment, even if it's only for a few minutes or a couple hours.  This is why direct perception is stressed in Zen. The flames comes and things change, but if we do not seek beyond the flames we can learn from each moment we have. If we do not, there is nothing else to have that is real.

I return again and again to this concept of the house on fire in my Zen thinking. It can be applied to our experiences, relationships, and view of ourselves.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mini-Rant: Pro-Choice is Everyone's Business

Given the underhanded assault on women's reproductive rights raging in this country right now, I felt like I wanted to post something about the issue.

For my entire thinking life, I have been pro-choice.  However, after I came out in college, I began to feel that my opinion on the subject was simply irrelevant. If asked, I said: "It's an issue for women to decide." I mean, I could understand a heterosexual man being concerned with the issue. And lesbians, as women, could justifiably find the issue important. But as a gay man I had no skin in the game, I thought, so why should I be entitled to any opinion on the subject? This 'enlightened' view only lasted a few weeks.

I was rudely snapped out of it while watching the news with a very close female friend. At the time, Republicans and Christian extremists were trying to erode women's reproductive rights. My friend was very concerned, and especially disgusted at the idea that these people expected rape victims to carry their attacker's child to term. I don't remember what she said that spurred the question but I asked her: "If abortion were outlawed and you needed to have one, what could you do?" Without hesitation, she looked me right in the eye and said: "I would get one."

I realized at that moment reproductive rights is not a issue of gender politics, it's an issue of health care access and it affects everyone. Anyone who has a mother, sister, daughter, friend, niece, whatever that they care about has to care about reproductive rights as a result. We all have skin in the game, and no one can sit on the fence. So I came back to being pro-choice all the way position. No exceptions.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Paris (Day 2, Part 2) - Pompidou Centre

Pompidou Centre
As everyone knows, Paris was the hub of the art world for many decades. So traveling here means museums are going to be on your itinerary. This is where Jim and I ran into some problems. Jim is fine with museums and looking at art, but our opinions about art diverge a lot as we get into modern and contemporary works. Further, if left to my own devices, I could have happily spent all nine days gliding around the various Parisian museums and galleries, soaking up art. Jim is not interested in standing around all day looking at paintings.

Many say the secret of a successful relationship is compromise, and I suppose we were a model of this during our afternoon at Pompidou Centre. After cruising the modern art floor (probably too much time for Jim's taste), he was in no mood to check out the contemporary art floor. On my side, I would have spent much more time on the modern floor and then happily have tackled the contemporary stuff.  This is the inherent flaw in compromise. While everyone gets to influence the decision, the final decision doesn't make anyone really happy.

Personally, I think Jim and I should have seen this coming and planned for it. Just because we're a couple doesn't mean we do everything together. We're a couple, not Siamese twins! On a trip like this, why not have a day where we take off on separate trajectories? It certainly wouldn't have taken much thought to find something Jim would have enjoyed more than several hours of Matisse, Mondrian, and Braque. At the end of the day, we could meet at some great restaurant for dinner to regale each other with our adventures. So much better for everyone! Oh well, hindsight is 20-20.

Le Luxe I, 1907
Henri Matisse
Oil on canvas, 210 x 138 cm
If you're not a Matisse fanboy (or girl), I suggest you stop reading this post right now because I promise there is nothing of interest here for you.

I learned a great deal seeing some Matisse works in person. But then one always does learn more about art by seeing the real deal rather than pictures in a book or magazine. Photos often fail to get the colors exactly right, rarely convey the scale of the piece, and usually lose the texture of paint application. As a result, it's not wrong to say that a photo of a painting can be visually inaccurate.

The Matisse paintings at Pompidou Centre are an example of the inferior viewing experience provided by photographs of art. In photographs, Matisse's work takes on a solid, colorful appearance. Sort of like icons. The actual works are not this clean or simple. The colors are there, but the roughness of the brushstrokes are surprising if all you've seen are photos.

Matisse - like many modern artists - wasn't especially concerned about polish. Often, he wasn't even concerned about covering his entire canvas. You can see the lack of overt finesse in the way fields of color are sometimes not blended. There are also many places on his canvasses where brushstrokes were low on paint and leave most of the canvas or underlying color exposed. It appears Matisse made little attempt to hide these artifacts of his painting process.

I also wonder about how Matisse prepared his canvasses (or if he did). Standing before the actual works, you can see that some of the exposed areas are filthy. Not sure if that's due to a lack of priming or an issue with the history of the paintings. Also, in many works, Matisse's fields of color are cracked, which seems odd given the relative youth of these paintings. Not sure what that's all about, but it's interesting information to have in understanding the works and how they were made.

And this was just my experience with Matisse's works! The Pompidou's modern art floor had plenty of Cubism, Surrealism, Color Field, and installation works, including a Rothko and a Mitchell. Just too much to appreciate in a few short hours!

After we left the museum ('escaped' might be the word Jim would use), we went for dinner at a cafe just down the street. We were both dead tired by this point and were happy to relax with some wine and watch the world go by.
Jim enjoying a well-deserved meal and rest!