Last week on Tuesday April 23, 2019 I was up early before the sunrise. There was much to do: an early swim at the gym, before an early day at work. Quietly closing the door so as not to wake the sleeping family, bounding down the stairs towards the car, I stopped in my tracks. The waning gibbous moon shone bright, but what captured my attention was the shining planet just beneath the moon visible to my naked eye. What celestial body briefly shared a trek across this late April night sky with our moon? Quickly searching Google, I learned the planet was Jupiter, the fifth planet from our sun and the largest in our system, a gas giant like Saturn; Jupiter sacred to the principal god in Roman mythology, and visible in the night sky to astronomers since antiquity. Two days later on Thursday April 25, I was once again awake early before the sun, once again on my way to swim. That morning, Saturn was the moon’s companion, although much dimmer than Jupiter, it was still the brightest celestial body closest to the moon. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and the second largest planet in our solar system. It is the most distant of the five planets visible to the naked eye, the other four being Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. The Heavens gave me a glorious gift this week: a full moon and two rare planets. Jupiter and Saturn dancing with the moon consecrated the rare coincidence of Pesach and Easter, a conjunction giving us here on Earth a special time to consider the interconnectedness of deliverance, freedom, redemption, and forgiveness.
Oakland, California is my home. Donald Trump in a recent New York Times interview with Robert Draper told a story about Oakland — calling my city one of the most dangerous places in the world. Biking Oakland’s streets or walking the sidewalks does not feel particularly scary to me. Of course one should always be aware and sensible of your surroundings while moving through the urban scape. But there is so much good at work and at play in this city, designating it simply as dangerous, dismisses it unfairly. Engaging with my fellow city dwellers at the farmer’s market, the YMCA, the coffee shop, or at Cato’s watching the Warriors, I become part of the city’s story. And it is wonderful to talk, walk and work with these diverse and special people and hear what makes us Oaklandish.
Oakland is a vital city undergoing change. San Francisco’s high cost-of-living has brought a wave of immigrants to Oaktown who live and work amongst longtime residents. New buildings are under construction and old buildings are being renovated. Change brings a new skyline, new traffic patterns, and new conversations and exchanges between people of differing genders, colors, sexual preferences, and creeds. And like many cities, experiencing a rebounding economy, crime, poverty, injustice and pain exist alongside the rebirth.
There are many stories to be told about Oakland: stories of success; stories of despair; stories of challenge; and stories of recovery. These are the stories that we who love Oakland want to tell and hear told. Irresponsible politicians write a city off when they label it dangerous without understanding the community, with little knowledge of individual stories, without context or perspective. It is criminal to disparage a town, without having a clear understanding of who lives there, their dreams and their capacity to achieve those dreams. It is criminal to dismiss a city without knowledge of the problems it faces, without a sincere concern for it’s people and without suggesting sustainable strategies to help resolve the challenges it faces. Stories, of poverty and pain, are rewritten by building faith in community, and keeping hope in individuals alive. Stories, of poverty and pain, are resolved with better access to education, a decent minimum wage, affordable housing, and health benefits funded by raising the taxes of the wealthiest 1%.
There are many ways to tell stories, and artistic works are usually at the forefront of engagement making the human connection, building awareness, and starting a dialogue. Thirty-second sound bites and 140 character tweets by grandstanding politicians can end a story before it has a chance to begin. The book arts, the dramatic arts, the performing arts, and the visual arts create spaces that reveal our experiences, open hearts and initiate listening. The great soul is in everyone and their stories should be told.
The poet William Carlos Williams in his poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower wrote:
“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.”
“I am a poor wayfaring stranger, while travelling through this world of woe.
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger. In that bright world to which I go.
I’m going there to see my mother. She said she’d meet me when I come.
I’m only going over Jordan. I’m only going over home.”
A classic American folk and gospel song, it resonates with one of Buddhism’s four Noble Truths that all is suffering, all is woe, and impermanence is one of the great causes of suffering. But a bright world exists to which we can go.
Last week the rains stopped and the fruit trees blossomed, a month before expected, but nonetheless spectacular for their early arrival. The plum trees in my yard shimmered in the February sunset, still winter by the calendar. The blossoms will not remain long. But long enough to tarry in my dreams, haunt my imagination, and find their way from brush to canvas to capture the beauty of impermanence.
This weekend we will say goodbye to a good friend, my second mother, who has gone over Jordan. There is no sickness, toil or danger, in that bright world to which she goes. Someday we’ll join her, going there, no more to roam. She said she’d meet us when we come. She said she’s only going home.
Cycling in the rain, while a bit hairy has great rewards. Riding the bike path on the Bay Bridge approach from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island suspends one in time and space. Rushing past, the wind filling my ears, I swear that was a glimpse of the great void in the corner of my eye. Perhaps, because of the recent deaths of cherished artists Alan Rickman and David Bowie, and the impending departure of a loved one, time and the measurement of our impact here on earth has been much on my mind. Western Civilization has bequeathed paradoxes to ponder and motivate us: reverence for eternity and a fascination with yesterday and yonder. Measuring, measuring, measuring, always measuring; how will we be judged by our peers or by heaven? Ungrounded measuring can mean endless suffering.
Lewis Mumford compared these paradoxes in The Golden Day. Describing the Middle Ages, Mumford wrote “medieval culture lived in the dreams of eternity: within that dream the visible world of cities and castles and caravans was little more than a forestage on which the prologue was spoken.” Characterizing the Renaissance, Mumford wrote “the first hint of change came in the Thirteenth Century, with the ringing of the bells…..as soon as the mariner could calculate his position in time and space, the whole ocean was open to him…..time and space took possession of the European’s mind. Why dream of heaven or eternity?…..outside the tight little world of Here and Eternity, they were interested in Yonder and Yesterday…..”
Reaching the end of the bike path, I dismounted and looked at the southwest vista. Thanks to Descartes‘ Cartesian coordinates, my position in time and space could be plotted, but where was I? Late afternoon, hundreds of cars rushed by, racing time, creating a thunderous enveloping sound. The grey twilight descended. Mortality, ageing and death are inescapable. All is impermanence, but acknowledgement is the first step on the Middle Way.
Rainy days are magical. Swaddled by the silvery mist, the grey-like sound of the hoot owl haunted the coastal live oak and eucalyptus forest of the East Bay hills near Oakland. Enchanted by the muted colors and subdued sounds we hiked the muddy Laurel Canyon trail. Twelve hundred feet above the sea promises a fair prospect. But reaching the hilltop, we found Wildcat Peak cloaked in a thick woolly rain cloud. Playfully, I imagined the peaks marking the compass points obscured by inclemency: Mount St. Helena (North), Mount Diablo (East), Mountain Hamilton (South), and Mount Tamalpais (West). Few hikers joined us on this cold, leaden day, but we found great warmth in our companionship and the grey solitude.
The artist and writer David Batchelor in The Luminous and the Grey surfaced the painter Vincent Van Gogh’s thoughts about the colour grey. Writing to his brother Theo in the 1880s, Van Gogh came to grey’s defence pointing to the “endless variations of greys, red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange grey, and purple grey…..it is impossible to say, for instance, how many green greys there are, it varies endlessly.” Continuing on this theme, Batchelor quotes the Bauhaus painter and color theorist Johannes Itten “[grey] is mute, but easily excited to thrilling resonances.” Batchelor opines “a small amount of any colour can and does transform grey…..into something subtle, complex and even thrilling.”
The Japanese poet Matsuo Basho describes this atmosphere – the solitude of grey – best with his haiku:
Winter solitude —
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.
The Society of Six, led by Selden Gile, part of the San Francisco Bay Area modernist art scene, painted plein air from 1917 to 1927. William Clapp, later Curator of the Oakland Museum and one of the Six, described their work as the intent “to produce joy through the use of the eyes.” After hiking short distances in the East Bay Hills or along the Oakland waterfront they painted small canvases that could be done quickly and “on the spot” creating a visual language defined by distinctive color and spatial relationships. Louis Siegriest, Maurice Logan, August Gay and Bernard von Eichman completed the close-knit group working from Gile’s cabin on Chabot Road, Oakland.
Led by the great artist Professor Anthony Dubovsky, our Visual Studies seminar Fall 2015, met weekly to discuss the Art History spectrum considering visual language, layers of meaning, and methods to organize expression. Mr. Dubovsky’s exhaustive knowledge of art and culture and the special insights provided by my fellow students, fueled our discussion to understand what is intentional and what is discovered in the artist’s creative act. Our goal was to grasp the diversity of visual language and nurture our own voice through individual art practice and group discussion. Tony introduced me to the work of Selden Gile suggesting the spontaneous plein air approach of the Society of Six might inform my art practice. The seminar experience was rich and priceless. Because of the seminar, I have renewed the exploration of visual language. What is my current painting vocabulary? It is time to let the painting speak for itself. Now, when I pick up my brush, dip into the paint, and connect with the canvas, I bring intent, and also the courage to let go. What will the painting be? What will I discover? I draw inspiration from the poet Paul Valery in Mauvaises Pensées et Autres: “the painter should not paint what he sees, but what will be seen.”
Our backyard is blessed with fruit trees. In early summer, the apricots and plums ripen and soon find their way as jam, the taste of sunshine on a winter’s day. And now with fall’s arrival the Flanders Fig has ripened; with the pear and persimmon trees soon to follow. This week we will celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish agricultural festival celebrating the harvest. And so we tend to our figs. Even in this severe drought the trees are doing their utmost to participate in the cycle of life; and for this I am grateful and give thanks. But I worry. How much longer can they last with such little rain? Come hither El Nino, and when you come, don’t be shy, bring your entire Cumulonimbus family.
Harvested figs have become star performers in a galette, in salads, and rumors in our home, suggest a caramelized future for pizza pies. We planted the fig tree five years ago and over the years, we have tended the tree, watering, pruning branches, and building supports ensuring it would could grow tall and strong. This is the first bountiful harvest, so we eagerly await the fruit. The tree stands over fifteen feet in height, it’s branches tending towards the sun to help ripen the fruit. Figs are a favorite of the creatures with which we share this Oakland neighborhood; so, fig picking must be timed perfectly. The fruit needs to be ripe enough, but not so ripe as to become easy pickings for the raccoons, jays and squirrels that call our backyard home.
Tending my ripening figs, I contemplated their figgy future. What if the figs could break Newton’s Law of Gravity (avoiding a Fig Newton future) and fly like Pegasus? If figs could fly, what would they intend: remain on the branch, the majority content to a predetermined future filling the stomach’s of mammals and birds; or continue the cycle of rebirth, gravitating to mother earth seeding a new fig tree? If figs could fly, would they break their natural tendency and fly away: planting themselves in a land of gentle rain, or perhaps seek further enlightenment through a closer relationship with the sun? For the remainder of this day, I shall remain in this peaceful garden, seeking liberation from my own samsara by practicing self-discipline, participating in meditative concentration, and considering the wisdom of emptiness. Hoping that should I ever achieve nirvana, I would return as a Bodhisattva, attending to Figuasus and fig lovers on their flightpaths to enlightenment.