Beautiful Things

Jackson Lake 3 cropped 2Recently, I subscribed to an internet program that is supposed to help with relaxation and meditation, using images of nature accompanied by peaceful music. Lots of flutes. I like to listen while I work; it cuts the silences of working from home.

I was reading one day, listening, glancing up occasionally to see what beautiful thing was on. Suddenly I felt sad, but I wasn’t sure why.  After a while, I realized that I was sad because I would never actually see the beautiful things that were on the screen. Except on a screen. I may never visit a beach in Thailand at sunset, or the Alps at sunrise. Because of time. Because of distance. Because of money. Because of age or health. It is world of beautiful things but our time here is short and for most of us our resources are limited.

And then I thought, yet here I am now seeing these things on television at least. That is seeing of a kind. Some of them I might have guessed at their existence. But many I would likely never have known about, except for this seeing. And if the images in this program are beautiful, there are many more beautiful images, stunning and extraordinary and strange, shown on TV and the Internet these days, on channels dedicated to them.

And not just natural beauty. Art is more accessible than ever before. Major museums are putting images of masterpieces within the reach of everyone at a click or two. And music also. Sites stream Bach and Mozart, Schubert and Prokofiev (my personal favorite), and so many more, many I have never heard of. Fifty years ago― no make that one hundred years ago, I forget how old I am―you would have had to attend a concert in Oslo or Vienna or New York to hear them.

This is a miraculous age of beautiful things, offered to us wherever we turn. I’m sure that they are more beautiful to experience in person. I would rather see them from a concert in Oslo, an evening at the Met in New York, or flying over the Alps at sunrise (okay, I might have to close my eyes at that one).

But even in seeing them in this removed way, they are still beautiful. And I can see more of them this way than I could possibly see in a lifetime. That’s a gift, and something to be grateful for.

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The Three Pietas

“All-changing time now darkens what was bright,
Now ushers out of darkness into light” 
                                                                Horace

For much of his life, my father managed an appliance store called General Electronics at 4513 Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington DC, just up the street from American University. There's a Starbucks there now I think.

They sold primarily General Electric appliances for local residents. But a large part of their business was selling appliances for export.

In DC, this was a booming market. My father knew the procurement officers from embassies, consulates, and military posts all over the world, as well as many of the staffers from foreign embassies in DC. I remember one of the staffers from the Norwegian embassy would bring us lefse from the home country, a boyhood treat Dad craved.

I worked at the store most Saturday’s from age 12 or so, as did my three brothers. After a few years, I knew the electrical specs for pretty much every nation from Japan to Jordan. I wasn’t as introverted then and enjoyed being on the sales floor, meeting people from all over the world,  surprised to find how much they valued things I took for granted, like washing machines and refrigerators.

The General Electric company offered sales incentives, and Dad often brought home new televisions or appliances, including the microwave my mother wouldn’t use at first. But their favorite incentive was travel. GE would host trips for groups of top salesmen (I suspect back then they were all men). Often the same people would go on subsequent trips, and they made  some lasting friendships and stayed in touch long after my father retired.

So once every couple of years, my parents would fly off to Europe and other destinations that seemed so exotic to me. The world felt larger then, yet despite the nuclear threat of the cold war, somehow safer.

I don’t remember all the places they went. Paris for sure. Madrid. Mexico City (twice I think). Acapulco.  Italy. Probably others.

I could figure it out. They took hundreds of photos, now stored away in a box until I get around to digitizing. They also kept matchbooks from all their travels, and my mother bought dolls from many countries.

And they bought other souvenirs. A painting of the Madonna from Spain. A silver ring (two actually, on different trips) from a Mexican silversmith. A replica of Michelangelo’s David. And three miniature marble Pietas.

I’m guessing the Italy trip was my mother’s favorite. A devout Church-Every-Sunday-Sodality-On-Saturday-Make-Your-Children-Go-To-Sunday-School-Even-Though-Its-On-Monday Catholic, she must have been enthralled by Rome. She visited the Vatican, saw the Sistine Chapel, had an audience with the pope (John or Paul, I’m not sure which) (and I don’t mean Beatles). And bought three copies of the Pieta, Michaelangelo's statue depicting Mary holding the body of Jesus.

They are sitting side by side now in the china cabinet, with the other curios she assembled, like the girl and puppy porcelain statue I have written about elsewhere. The Pietas differ in size by maybe half an inch, and have slightly different shades of white, from snow to cream. Perhaps the color has aged, or the marble is just different.

I have often wondered why she bought three. I never thought to ask while she was alive. Did she intend them as gifts? Did she plan to give them to her four sons? (I got the David, so maybe the three Pietas were for the others, who obviously needed more spiritual help).Did she want to help the artists who carved them? Or was she just so overwhelmed by the spiritual experience?

I don’t know. I’ll never know I suppose. The three pietas will always be a mystery, unless she was right in her belief, and we will all be together someday, and I can ask her. It would be like her to think that far ahead. She was a great planner, with a wry sense of humor. I can see her smiling as she bought them, thinking of how puzzled I would be many years later.

If she was right, one day (or no day) I will know the answer. And be overwhelmed by the spiritual experience myself. 

Yet, in some sense, it is the wondering that I crave. Keats had a phrase, negative capability, the willingness to live (and create) in a state of irreducible not knowing. In a state of wonder.  

Those who reduce belief to a kind of knowing may be missing this point: the gift of wonder is the essential condition of religion, of art, maybe of sentient life, essential because it impels us forward, closer to that now unreachable truth.

So I wonder about those three pietas. I really do wonder.

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Lift Thine Eyes

 

Bridal Procession on Hardanger Fiord - Hans Gude (with a little assistance from Adolph Tidemand).

 

 

Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes,
behold the mountain's crown,
heed not a frailty of craft,
rough rocks and storms that drown

Above the tumult of blind strife,
there lies a clearer sphere,
where angels weave a tapestry
from sunlit shadows here

That's from whence our help shall come,
a guide through life's defiles
to heaven's Revelation,
the Hope of misty miles

 

 

Into the Light - Hans Gude (with a little assistance from Adolph Tidemand).

Verses based on Psalm 121

Art: Hans Gude, Norwegian Romantic landscape painter, March 13, 1825 - August 17, 1903

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Painting Sunsets

My new children’s fantasy novel Painting Sunsets will go on sale next month. You can pre-order the book online or through your local bookstore.

Find out more here:

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