The View from my Window

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The View from my Window

It’s a cold Sunday morning in March. Outside my window, the trees span the parkway like forlorn sentinels. Their twisted branches resemble sculptures etched against the metal of the sky. Yesterday’s wind hung plastic bags instead of jewels onto wrought iron gates guarding the lawns of the apartment building where I live. Cars fly by in the service lane; riderless cars unaware of the passersby and the children crossing.

The radio announced snow.  The more affluent women of the neighborhood wearing  high heels stagger by  draped in their fur coats. It conjures up images of slaughtered creatures on their backs. Joggers suddenly appear,sauntering like pop up dolls, then bicycles competing with traffic as the lights turn green.

The window of my room frames that world as if an animated painting. In the lawn, purple cabbages retained their color and sparkle against the rusted face of the earth. The Japanese maple is sleeping but remains the meeting place of wandering minnows waiting for the seeds I sowed. Snow is announced. A blanket of white will claim its territory. And in the warmth of my room, pressing my nose against the window pane I will welcome nature creating another story.

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Montaigne and Stefan Zweig

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montaigne

During these times of uncertainty and colossal collusion by those in power, I find solace in the timeless wisdom of great thinkers. I consider none better than my mentor, the sixteenth century writer MONTAIGNE whose exquisite analysis of self in his collection of essays have sustained my faith in truth.

The following is taken from an essay dedicated to Montaigne by Stefan Zweig, a great and deeply perceptive visionary who understood the consequences of corruption and evil in the world. Stefan Zweig considered Montaigne as ” The one who remains standing in the chaos of the world.”

I will not translate it except for the first line, referring to power “ There is only one error and one crime: wanting to lock up the diversity of the world in doctrines and systems.”

The rest of the paragraph is déjà vu all over again. Montaigne who lived in the sixteenth century was a witness to intolerance, the inquisition and religious wars.
zweigStefan Zweig who lived in the twentieth century was a witness to the ignominy of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Reading in the original allows me to savor the clarity of ideas even more deeply because the language itself has a beauty and resonance that soothes and inspires.

Il n’est qu’une erreur et qu’un crime: vouloir enfermer la diversité du monde dans des doctrines et des systèmes. C’est une erreur que de détourner d’autres hommes de leur libre jugement, de leur volonté propre, et de leur imposer quelque chose qui n’est pas en eux. Seuls agissent ainsi ceux qui ne respectent pas la liberté, et Montaigne n’a rien haï autant que la “frénésie”, le délire furieux des dictateurs de l’esprit qui veulent avec arrogance et vanité imposer au monde leurs “nouveautés” comme la seule et indiscutable vérité, et pour qui le sang de centaines de milliers d’hommes n’est rien, pourvu que leur cause triomphe.

Tribute to Alan Vega

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21.Alan Bermowitz

Alan Bermowitz

This is how I remember Alan Bermowitz  (aka Alan Vega).  We first met on the steps of Boylan Hall in Brooklyn College.  He was in deep conversation with my friends Nicole, Evelyn and Mike. Mike was Italian and they were French. I came from Belgium ten years before with my father who had survived the horrors of WWII.

I was immediately smitten by the intensity of his presence, his good looks, his soulful eyes, the way he held his cigarette, and especially that radiating warmth that swept into me when we were introduced.

He had recently changed his major from astrophysics to art. It was in the Art Department that he met Kurt Seligman, the Swiss surrealist artist who left Europe to escape the upheaval of the Nazi regime. Seligman immediately recognized Alan’s talent and sensibilities, hovering over his development, considering him a prodigy.

Not having children of his own, Seligman was very protective of Alan, sharing his knowledge of not only art and artists he knew in Europe but also in his esoteric vision of existence. He invited him to his studio in upstate New York where they were able to spend hours discussing and unveiling all that Seligman knew and felt about art, music, mysticism and the occult.

Perhaps it was during those visits and discussions that Alan acquired his extensive awareness of surrealism, alternative music and movements that had captivated European artists, poets and musicians.  When Seligman died in a tragic gun accident, Alan felt he had lost a father.  But the ideas and influence of this great man were imbedded into his young prodigy who would take those ideas into another realm.

We were married and I became privy to a level of knowledge not readily available to someone who had just turned twenty- two. I came to know an intense yet mysterious young man who very early on was obsessed by man’s inhumanity to man. We had the Vietnam war to contend with and “times a changing” and Woodstock , all captivated by the mind and artistic soul of my husband.

He made me discover the works of Antonin Artaud, the creativity of Marcel Duchamp, and the eccentric  19th century writer Isidore Ducasse, known as Le Comte de Lautréamont.

We listened to music, sounds as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg, Varèse, Prokofiev, Nadia Boulanger, Bill Monroe, Waylon Jennings, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and eventually Bob Dylan, the Stones and a cornucopia of sounds that established a time and a place.  But what we agreed on was Elvis Presley who became the one who energized Alan in his musical quest for a sound he felt in his heart and soul.

He loved the art of the Renaissance, the colors, the subject matter and especially depictions of crucifixions, which eventually became a recurrent theme in his later drawings. The paintings of Rembrandt captivated him, not only the mastery of his renderings, but especially his connection with the every day life of people.

He loved Ghirlandaio’s “An Old Man and his Grandson” where he saw not the external appearance of the old man but his gentle expression and love.  But the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald we saw on a trip to Colmar, France, had a definitive influence on his later work . It is “an unforgettable vision of hell on earth with distorted figures and other worldly landscape surrounding a horrific crucifixion scene. You can see a distorted Christ splayed at the cross, his hands writhing in agony”. It is an image that remains imbedded in one’s mind.

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Alan Vega

I saw it in Alan’s performances, out on stage, open to the demonic tendencies of the crowd. I understood him connecting with a kind of suffering expressed in those paintings of Christ on the cross or St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr, displaying his wounds. I understood the music and the figure of the artist absorbing the negative stuff of those out there who came to be entertained by the wounding, the blood, the anger.

I later understood the breakthrough. How it all came together, the colors of the Renaissance disguised in his  early  sculpture installations; bright neon lights lying on the floor, in a sort of random arrangement of chaos, objects trailing the smell of dumpsters rotting in some forgotten railroad yards. Yet in his drawings, there always is a self-portrait somewhere in the work, perhaps the artist, perhaps Christ, onlookers to the unfolding of madness.

In retrospect I believe that when we married he was marrying my pain, my surviving the Holocaust, and the tragedy of WWII. On our trip to Europe he sought out places and people who would relate their ordeals. He then spent days recording his images in a series of black and white drawings he called Opus Anus.

Whatever he expressed with his art, I felt he was expressing for me too.

We divorced at the end of the sixties. My world crashed in. But I rose from the ashes, burnished and more complete knowing that I had shared a moment of eternity with a special being.  Thank you Alan Bermowitz.  You are among the elected ones.

Bali

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bali11Travel is a profitable exercise. The soul is there continually exercised in noticing new and unknown things and I do not know a better school.

These inspirational thoughts have been with me ever since I came upon the writings of the sixteenth century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. And they accompanied me on my recent journey to Bali, known as the Island of the Gods. The thought of “noticing new and unknown things” fueled my imagination, as well as Elizabeth Gilbert’s fabulous stories in her now famous book: Eat, Pray, Love.

bali8Having a most reliable guide and driver by the name of Gunung made it possible to be swept into a landscape that overwhelmed the senses.  As soon as one leaves the grandeur of the newly refurbished Denpassar airport one is transported into the magical, mystical world of gods and goddesses inhabiting this exotic island. The clarity of the light imbues everything the eye beholds with intensity.  Gargantuan statues of epic heroes loom over the scenery and are constant reminders of the sacred that fills the daily activities of the people.

The flowers; hibiscus, bougainvillea, poinsettia, jasmine, roses, begonias, water lilies and bali4hydrangeas will be used as offerings before the myriad of temples that are seen everywhere. Incense fills the air and hovers, leaving veils of fragrance above exquisitely carved wooden doors, then curls along the stones leading to inner courtyards where the beloved elephant god Ganesh, son of Shiva and Parvati reigns supreme. Most of the inhabitants are Hindu and like everything else on this island, legends perpetuate the reverence for the sacred. It links ancient beliefs that all is one and all is imbued with spirit leading to a kind of animism that transcends definition.

bali3In Ubud, the capital, I was swept into a world of scooters, mopeds, and motorcycles with entire families holding on to each other on the back seat.  There are hardly any accidents because according to Gunung people look out for each other. It was difficult for him to believe the number of deaths that occur on the streets of New York. “ We have forgotten about the sacred,” I answered. Nevertheless, it was dizzying looking at cars coming in the wrong direction, but in Bali traffic flows as in England. You just have to remember to look on the left. It’s a mind shift.

When Gunung realized my apprehension he slowed down allowing the details of life on the streets to come into focus; a woman walking with a basket poised on her head, a man wearing a saffron colored vest worn over a colorful printed body cloth, a textile store with photos in the window of crouching bodies working the looms and toothless smiles welcoming the onlookers into their life of toil. And everywhere statues of Ganesh bedecked in flowers, flowers  arranged on small trays as offerings to deities andbali5 greeting the shoppers entering the stores.

Another side of life reveals itself as well. Bony faces, haggard eyes, mangy dogs resembling hyenas resting against temple statues, their sad eyes looking out onto this moving colorful cadence of humanity.

It doesn’t take long to learn that there are people here who make $2 a day working in the rice fields and that part of the harvest goes to the owner.  The feudal system still exists after all. Yet the crafts and artistic talent reveal a people devoted to beauty in all its aspects. The Agung Rai Museum of Art in Ubud has an expansive collection of masterful works of art and wooden sculptures. The epic story of the Ramayana is expressed through gifted dancers accompanied by the sound of the gamelan, the local musical instrument. And then to satisfy the lust of demanding tourists, the shops are filled with leather goods, metalwork, sculptures, colorful garments, paintings and trinkets to dazzle the beholder.

bali9While beyond, out there in the luxury of the forest, tamarind and spice trees and dense clumps of coconut trees bejewel the landscape.  And in the north, where the Bali Sea enchants the shore, one can take a boat at dawn to go meet the dolphins frolicking in the waves warmed by the rising sun.

I left Bali filled with gratitude for the kindness and love expressed by all the generous people I met along the way; Sandeh, the charming hostess of the B&B, and Wati, the Javanese cook who still shares her exquisite recipes with me via e-mail.

bali7I give thanks to them all and especially to Ganesh, reigning lord of the Island of the Gods who allowed me a glimpse into the possibilities of paradise.

 

 

Springtime in the Desert

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It has been long and ruthless this winter of 2014.  The winds blasting frigid temperatures into the air, hurricanes devastating entire areas of land and the snow relentless and silent, throwing blankets of ice over the world. While underneath hurrying footsteps nature is sleeping, patiently nurturing seeds and the promise of new life.

This much anticipated event called the Vernal Equinox is due March 20, a date announcing the grand celebration about to take place. Spring is here and the world will once again be painted in exuberant colors

01desert-loot-kalot-shahdad-10-88-01In March of 1976 I was living in Shiraz, Iran with my partner Ed. We had been teaching at the University and were anticipating the closing of schools to celebrate the Iranian New Year or Now-Ruz, welcoming the year 2537. We planned to visit several cities, most particularly the village of Mahan and the shrine of Shah Nematollah Vali, the 14th century Iranian mystic and poet.

01death_valleyWe left Shiraz and headed east towards the desert cities of Kerman, Bam, Yazd and Mahan. Kerman was some 800 kilometers and 12 hours away from Shiraz, quite an undertaking for our little car, our Jyane, an Iranian version of the French 2CV Citroen. But lured by the history of these ancient cities we set out on the adventure accompanied by the hum of our mighty vehicle dashing into the enormous stretches of beige ripples of the Dashte-Lut desert. Then as if a magic wand had tapped into the horizon, villages appeared surrounded by mud walls crowned with blossoms and branches sparkling with tender new leaves. After a while I began recognizing almond trees, orange groves, wild pistachios with lavender heart shaped blossoms. I wondered how people survived here the rest of the year when everything is given up to the heat of a brutal sun. But this was springtime in the desert and all of nature was singing.  Here and there villagers appeared and women carrying earthen jars to collect water from a well. They walked about in striking dresses, their tinseled shawls fired by the noonday sun as they sat by some stream washing their aluminum pots and pans with earth then dipping them into the stream to rinse them out.

01springflower3We stopped for lunch next to a pistachio tree in bloom, their lavender hearts circled by white petals. We were overlooking a valley, above us a clear sky, and the stillness filled with echoes of the earth breathing.

 

The following poem was written in remembrance of Now-Ruz, 2537 in the Dashte-Lut desert, Iran.

My mind wanders
Over her photographs
A sequence of stories
Recorded on the road
Of time
In a land where
I gleaned
Mental jewels
And treasures

In a country
Once called Persia
I remember
A breath
Whispering
Spring is here

I remember
Pistachio trees
Dressed
In lavender veils
Flapping their colors
In the air 

I remember
Almonds buds
Transformed
Into bridal embroidery
Tumbling bouquets
Against crumbling walls
Cascades of flowers
Covering the sand
And branches
Beginning to dance 

I remember faces,faces
Silently watching
The transformation
Silent gazes
Watching
Springtime
Painting the desert
In Iran

Isfahan – My Valentine

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Isfahan 1 Thirty-five years ago seems like the distant past but not when memories linger, not only in the mind but the heart.  At certain times of the year, especially around the celebration of Valentine’s Day I am reminded of a great love I left behind in the legendary city of Isfahan when I lived in Iran.

Isfahan, the very name conjures up the Arabian Nights and the greatness of the ancient Persian Empire.  Rulers and dynasties left their imprint on old stones transforming them into palaces, mosques, minarets, madrasehs (schools), gardens and bazaars with names that evoke the grandeur of the East and Shah Abbas one of its greatest rulers.

Names like the Maidan-i-Shah (the Royal Place), Masjid-i-Jam (the Friday Mosque),  Chihil Sutun (Pavilion of  Forty Columns),  Bagh-i-Bolbol ( The Garden of the Nightingdale),  and Ali Qapu, the glorious gate once the portal of the Shah’s palace, bewilder the imagination.I only stayed a few days to visit a friend. But that changed when I was   introduced to a man I would never forget. The French have an exquisite expression that captures that moment: “le coup de foudre” lightning striking.  I knew that when his green-gray eyes met mine the world shifted its axis.

Isfahan2We talked until the wee hours of the morning that first night and when the dawn began to clear the sky he asked if I would like to take a walk along the Zayandeh Rud, the river that could be seen a short distance from his house. We stopped on the way in a “ash-paz-khâneh”, a soup kitchen that opens up in the early morning hours for men going to work. It was still winter and the fragrance and warmth that emanated from the kitchen felt like some wondrous gift. When we reached the riverbank we took off our shoes and walked barefoot in the snow. I didn’t feel the cold, only the warmth of his being, the magic of the moment.

I left Isfahan not knowing that it would be for the last time. Although we met  some time later, fate had other plans for us.  He would remain the road not taken. Yet that moment in Isfahan seemed written in the stars.

For R…

Isfahan

 …There was The Friday Mosque
The Maidan-i-Shah Square
Twisted lanes leading
Into the old city
Domed structures and façades
Dressed in jeweled mosaics
 
…There was a madrasah
Nearby at the east end of the mosque
And behind the West Iwan
A winter hall

…There also was
The old bazaar filled with
Fragrant spices
The sound of hammers
Against the copper pans
The colors and flashes
Of the Arabian Nights 

…There was
The Maidan-i-Shah
And the palace of Shah Abbas
Where under the arches
Rivulets of golden stalactites
Were always in bloom 

…There were
Curves and arabesques
Bursting into space
Chihil Sutun, Ali Qapu
Wonders of the past
Adorning the present

…And then
There was you
And I
One morning
In Isfahan
Walking along the river
On the icy lace of the mist
Clothing the cracked face
Of the earth 

…And then
There was you
And the touch of your breath
Against mine
That eternal moment
In time
When your arms
Wrapped me into
The warmth of
Your beating heart
Before the rising dawn
In Isfahan