Nothing comes between a man and his kilt.
Lately, I have been lopsidedly pursuing my artistic side. This is no doubt because of some weakness in my character causing me to avoid important tasks I should be doing rather than a true holy artistic passion. But I won’t argue with inspiration, however it arrives. I spent the morning, fooling around with a dollar store watercolor set (as you can see above) while my darling Mr. B. fed me strawberries and raspberries from his garden and we sat out on the deck listening to a Libravox recording of Howard’s End on YouTube. That was pretty perfect.
In the afternoon I took photographs of of beads for my new Etsy store–a story for another day. Yes, I have an actual, open, Etsy store! Below is an example of just one of the products I have for sale (these are some beads that I am “destashing”) . I learned how to stage photos of products in the class and I think the technique the teacher taught works pretty well. That is, use a piece of white posterboard, and shoot by a window during daylight. I also notice a dramatic angle helps give dimensionality.
Oh, you want to see MORE beads? Well, if you INSIST.
Here is a little garden of roses. Or, cabbages if you prefer. And some barrel-shaped beads good enough to eat (but I see the photo is too messy).
And some blue beauties.
So that is some of the fun I had today. In art.
The other day I had the good fortune to squeeze in a delightful breakfast and gossip fest with my friend Dahlia before Ramadan–which is not such a good time for ladies who brunch! I admire greatly the spiritual fortitude it takes her not to eat, or even drink water, all day long. It sounds very difficult to me, and yet the people I know, like Dahlia, who practice Ramadan don’t whine about not eating or drinking all day the way I imagine I would. In fact, they seem to find something very special about it. It seems to carve out a sense of sacred space and time, a different way of feeling, for them, in a waythat seems meaningful and connecting. I hope for all of my Muslim friends (and hello, Muslims everywhere), to feel that gentle, peaceful, open feeling I’ve observed this Ramadan season.
And in appreciation, I’d like to share something that I really treasure about the the Islamic world (besides saving civilization in Medieval times, algebra, Rumi, the number zero, and the usual list of accomplishments . . .) and that is art.
The Blue Beauty of Iznik Pottery
Take just one example–the elegant curving lines and patterns of Turkey’s Iznik pottery of the 15th to 17th century. To talk about Islamic art is always to talk about the sweep of history, of cultures meeting and melding. Iznik pottery is a perfect example of this quality of Islamic art. These earthenware pieces, distinctive for their lyrical cobalt blue floral patterns, were first made in western Anatolia, and are influenced both by China and the Ottoman Empire.
Iznik Pottery Dish with Saz leaves, rosettes, and other flowers. c. 1545-1550. (wikimedia commons)
The first of these pieces were made for the famous Topkapi palace. Later, Iznik pieces would be made in abundance for Suleiman the Magnificent. The styles changed over time, more colors were added, but blue was the fundamental underpinning color.Why? One reason was that blue was beautiful and it was also popular in China, which was at that time creating some of its finest blue and white porcelainware during the Ming dynasty. Chinese porcelain was the most sophisticated form of pottery in the world at that time. But more importantly, potters of Iznik were also able to get the cobalt ore earlier than they were able to get access to other colors–which would include first turquoise, then other hues such as purple, green, black gray, and red.
Iznikware often shows particular flowers, plants, and birds in rich, distinctive, curving patterns. There are peacocks and cypresses, prunus trees, carnations and roses, long, slender leaves of the saz plant, and tulips. In keeping The patterns are often ornate and fanciful. They call to mind a rich, peaceful, almost fairytale world of beautiful natural things in an earthly garden of delight.
One motif that catches at me is the tulip. Tulips are of course a very popular flower, and have an important role in the history of trade. In 1637, for example, during the end period of Iznik pottery, the Dutch had not only started mass-importing tulips from Turkey but they had a great economic crisis because people speculated on tulip bulbs, and the whole economy crashed. At any rate, it is interesting to see how they figure as a symbol of opulence in the Islamic world. (They were first cultivated in Persia, but had been cultivated in Turkey since the 10th Century CE).But Iznik tulips have an entirely different look and feel–more elongated, more lissome, more mobile-feeling, than one’s–my–image, anyway, of a field of Dutch tulips, which seem rather plain and hearty and vertical.
One thing is clear: The human beings who created these pieces lived in a civilized world where there were people like us who could be struck through the heart by the power of an image.. And they were treasured and cared for generation after generation by people who felt their value. What does it mean, just to be something so inexpressibly beautiful? I don’t have words for it. So I painted my own simple Iznik tulip, just to sing back to those potters half a world and half a millenia away.
Yesterday when I was at my book group, my friend Monica asked me, “Are you still looking at pattern books?”
That’s because I am an eternal drawer and doodler and writer (and she was catching me doodling under the table), and last year, I was doing a lot of my doodling modeled on pictures from pattern books. I have incredibly restless, fidgety hands, and I have a hard time listening to a conversation if I am not taking notes, doodling, drawing, fiddling with yarn, or twisting something with my fingers. Thus has it always been. As you can see from the name of my blog, 135 journals, I have been keeping journals for some time. I have far more than 135 journals. (And yes, I do look back at them, and I still have all of them, and I am very happy I started the habit when I was 14 and I do write pretty much every day).
A few years ago, I became interested—or rather, re-interested—in art. Visual art has always been an interest of mine. It was my first love, before words came and stole me away. In recent years, especially since I have become sick, art has seemed to open different pathways than words. I feel as if there is a great roaring in my head of things I need to communicate. I have things I need to express, and things I need to be understood. These are two different things. Art has been utterly compelling as a force to help me to both.
On my path to rediscovering my own language in art, I started devouring art books, especially books on different kinds of patterns. There was something about patterns that particularly compelled me.
Studying these art books helped me. Why not be inspired by the gifts and wisdom of others? It gave me an expanded framework for thinking both about patterns and about symbols. This allowed me both to find and to create symbols that meant something to me. It showed me how repeating patterns can give emphasis and importance to certain areas of a piece. That designs aren’t just random. They serve a purpose. There’s a reason why people love patterns and have always found them comforting and important.
More importantly, I know why I love creating patterns. But now, I don’t look at pattern books for inspiration when I draw. I just breathe, put pen to paper, and let go. I don’t know what will come out, or, if it doesn’t, if I can fix it. But that’s okay. there’s a lot of paper in the world. And the patterns will still keep emerging, from the pattern book that is unfurling inside of me.
I force myself to p
I force myself to punch in the library’s number.
“Hi,” I snuffle into the phone. “May I please talk to Ellen?”
“May I tell her who’s calling?””
“I’m . . . um, somebody who owes the library a lot, I mean a LOT (dramatic sigh) of books.”
“Alexandra who? Can I have your last name?”
“Oh god it’s so EMBARRASSING. Do I HAVE to tell you???”
“Umm, okay, I’ll just see if she knows.”
A minute passes. I hear fumble fumble. Ellen gets on the line. “Oh, Alexandra, what are we going to do with you?”
“I knowwwwwwwwwwwww, it’s my annual Call of Shame. Once again, I didn’t return like a jillion books. From last summer. And I’ve been doing this nonsense since I was a child. ”
“The problem is that I had to pay some of the other libraries in the system for the books you didn’t return…”
“Don’t worry, it’s not a problem. It’s just a number. Just tell me what I owe you and I’ll write the check. The gimongous yet hunormous check.”
“I just wish I didn’t have to charge you so much…”
“No, no, no, it’s all my fault. I bring this on myself. It will be good for my soul to do penance…It’s just that I get so afraid to call you.”
“I don’t know why you get so afraid.”
“I don’t either. It’s not as if I think you’re going to unhinge your jaws like a snake and eat my head. All you ever do is look at me with your big eyes and feel sorry for me and act really nice. Maybe that’s the hard part.”
She laughs. Nicely. Because she is so, so nice. I wonder if it would be better if she were cruel.
“I know it’s really complicated trying to figure out what I owe because I took books out from so many libraries in the system,” I say, “And now I gave you complicated work because that’s the kind of horrible, horrible book-not-returning person I am. So you don’t have to rush. Just tell me when you figure it out and I’ll get you the check right away.”
“Why don’t you tell me your cell phone number,” she says. “That way the information will be a little more . . . private.”
“You mean, so my husband won’t have to hear it?” I said. “You’re a genius, Ellen.” Of course, he’d see the check. But at least he wouldn’t be hearing whatever the horrible number was spoken OUT LOUD for his amusement. If he dares to be amused. Which might be the shortest and most tragic moment of amusement ever.
“So—you’re never going to take out books from the library again, right?” the husband asks as I get off the phone.
“Of course I’m not,” I say. “Don’t you think I ever learn ANYTHING?” Much as I said the same thing last year, right after signing the check of shame and delivering it into Ellen’s gentle hands.
Okay, 2015, you had your good points. The garden was great. Broccoli in December? Big plus. Also, my husband retired in June, and he is happy all day long. He does one project or another with such astonishing speed that he is a joy to watch. At Christmas, my older child reminded me that I have won life’s lottery because one of my sons is a chef in training and the other is an Apple Genius, so they could, if need be, take care of all my food and technology needs, and what other needs are there, really? And how about Spotlight, and Game of Thrones, and Twitter, and Art, and my friends, and chocolate, and flowers, and chocolate, and . . .
But the news. You know. I don’t even need to say anything. It’s like looking into a big pail of throw-up. Let me count the way.
First, would anyone care to argue that this year was one of ennobling political discourse? It was crude, infantile, hateful, and probably horribly effective. I fear that Trump tapped into something bloodthirsty, stupid and crazy that has been seeking legitimacy in certain parts of the American voterate.America on race: This year I wrote a non-fiction book for young adults about racial profiling. It was a very difficult book to write for three reasons. 1. The story kept changing. 2. I’m white. 3. It broke my heart 20 times. But it was a powerful experience. Even though it was actually the second book I wrote about racial profiling and the first one didn’t crush me nearly the same way. This was the YEAR of racial profiling. And it was the year that all the dots connected, one by one, until it was as if these dots were so many axons firing together that a live bright line of a message was seared across my brain, a live neuronal wire: something terribly wrong is going on in our country, something is unjust, our beautiful children are being killed, and we can’t rest until this is fixed.
I realized that this is a depressing time to be a woman. I mean, compared to 99 percent of human history, it’s a good time. But compared to being a man, it’s not as good. And why should that be? I watched one of the Republican debates and I was viscerally repelled. Holy crap, I thought. Do they think women can’t hear them? I guess I’m not used to being talked about so blatantly as if I couldn’t possibly think for myself.
Okay. I’m going to stop ranting. Personally, this year was just hard. If you have been following this blog, you may have noticed that I haven’t been writing much. I’ve only been posting things I’ve drawn. . That’s for a good reason and a bad reason. The good reason is that I’ve created a lot of pictures. The bad reason is that I’ve felt as if I’m in a land beyond words. I’ve written in my own journal, but I haven’t written to friends, haven’t spoken much to people outside of my own immediate family circle for a long time. I have been struggling with an autoimmune disease and all of its fallout. In 2016, I hope to articulate what a strange experience it has been to be among the upside-down world of what Susan Sontag called “the kingdom of the sick.” It is such a constant surprise of otherness that I still can’t believe some of the experiences I have, emotional, physical, and relational (is that a word?) every day. For
For a long time I thought it was so weird that maybe people wouldn’t believe me or think I was insane. But now I think that maybe people are curious about what other people’s lives are like. Maybe people secretly really would like to know what it is like to be inside the lives of another person, if that person can write about it without self-pity. I reread James MacBride’s wonderful memoir The Color of Water this year. It is about what it was like to grow up as one of 12 black kids of a Jewish mother in an extremely poor household in New York City. This family didn’t even have enough to eat–and yet every single kid was fiercely successful. It is an amazing story.
Can I just say what I experience? I don’t know yet. It is a mystery and a wonder. But maybe I’ll try. I’m beginning to suspect that there is something about struggling and suffering and vulnerability and weakness that is not, as I fear in my weakest moments, sad and pathetic, but is actually, the universal human connector. It is what every story about all of us, every story we care about, is actually all about. It’s what any story I’d want to hear about you would be about. It’s not interesting to hear what was easy for you to do. What was hard for you to do, and how did you do that thing? Or, what did you learn from trying? That’s what human beings have to share with each other that’s of value. That, and kindness.