Snow and Shin Hanga

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow at Nezu Shrine

I love walking through New York City during a snowfall. Every corner bar aglow with candlelight in the windows becomes an Edward Hopper tableau. As pedestrians hurry past, turning their collars up against the wind and snow, I wonder what’s in their grocery bags and what they’ll have for dinner to stave off the chill. I make a mental bow of gratitude to the people driving cabs and delivering take-out and wonder what they’ll do to warm up when their shift is over. Then I make my own way home, where a tattered but beloved cashmere schmatta and (if I’m lucky) a bowl of soup await.

Winter arrived last Friday with a record-setting snowstorm. When the snowfall was at its heaviest, I was in a Lower Manhattan restaurant with friends, watching the snowflakes swirl among the skyscrapers. By the time we said our goodbyes and parted company, the snow had turned to sleet. Holding the conviviality of the evening as close as a secret, I made my way through ankle-deep slushy puddles and caught the subway back to Brooklyn, where I ate a couple of clementines and sipped mint tea infused with cinnamon. The coziness of the scene was tempered with a touch of melancholy; my husband was working late into the night and I made sure to leave the light on for him before I turned in for the night, alone.

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow at Ukimido Katata

Japanese shin-hanga artists understood the magic of an evening snowfall and the fine line between solitude and loneliness. Shin-hanga, which literally means “new prints,” was an art movement that flourished in the early 20th century in which artist, carver, printer and publisher collaborated to create woodblock prints that honored Japan’s centuries-old ukiyo-e printmaking tradition while incorporating European influences, particularly Impressionism’s attention to light and perspective.

Looking at shin-hanga winter scenes, I can almost smell the wood-smoke-and-snow fragrance in the air and, just as in present-day New York, I wonder about the people I see. Is the kimono-clad woman in Kawase Hasui’s Shiba-Zojo Temple entering or departing the temple—or is does she just happen to be passing by the sacred place on her way from a visit with a friend? Is the lone figure in Snow at Terajima Village (another Kawase Hasui work) focused solely on getting home and out of the weather, or is he strolling slowly to better enjoy the lamplight reflected on the water as snow crunches under his feet?

The pristine beauty of freshly fallen snow never lasts long. But for a few precious hours, the world around us is hushed and still. It is good for us to fall silent, too, and gratefully make our way through the cold to the warm light of home.

Kawase Hasui, Twenty Views of Tokyo: Shiba Zojo Temple

Kawase Hasui, Twelve Scenes of Tokyo: Evening Snow at Terajima Village

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snowy Winter Night Street Scene

Kawase Hasui, Snow in Mukojima

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow on Sumida River

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The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen!

We all have superpower dreams once in a while. Some people dream of flying, others of breathing underwater or leaping buildings in a single bound. I once dreamt I could sing soaring, effortless high notes like Aretha Franklin and believe me, that sensation was more thrilling than anything Superman was ever capable of.

When I was twenty-five and newly arrived in New York City—perpetually broke and overwhelmed by the day-to-day rigors of waitressing, apartment-hunting, and trying to forge a singing career—I spent a couple hundred bucks I didn’t have on tickets to an Aretha Franklin concert at Radio City. 

The crowd that night was star-studded; I was seated behind Arif Marden and Cissy Houston, and Bette Midler was just a couple of rows ahead. Aretha was in fantastic voice and seemed to be giving a concert for her friends, singing whatever she damn well pleased. The set list was eclectic, spanning the full breadth of Aretha’s decades-long career: she sang “Won’t Be Long” and a few jazz standards, a nod to her earliest recordings on Columbia Records. She treated us to a medley of her biggest hits and even performed “Precious Memories,” from her 1972 live gospel album “Amazing Grace.”

The apex of the evening came when Aretha, resplendent in a Glinda-the-good-witch-of-the-North ball gown, chandelier earrings, and a silky blonde ponytail, sat down at the piano. She sighed. One of her earrings had fallen out at some point earlier in the evening, so she took the other one out, too, and set it on the piano. She turned to the audience and said, conspiratorially, “Imma let it all hang out tonight,” and she took off her ponytail and set it on the piano, too. Then she accompanied herself (she could have had a great career as a pianist even if she’d never sung a note) on a rendition of “Dr. Feelgood” that shook Radio City Music Hall—and the souls of everyone in it—to their very foundations.

In the 1980s, the state of Michigan officially declared Aretha Franklin’s voice a precious natural resource. As far as I’m concerned, she was one of the wonders of the world. In my life’s most exuberant moments of heart-spilling-over joy, I’ve turned to Aretha for release. In the darkest nights of my soul, hopeless and helpless, Aretha has given me faith in the tomorrows yet to come. She’s still doing that.

Right now I am listening to Aretha’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” because Aretha’s singing is the closest thing I have to a religion. “At the end of a storm,” she sings, “there’s a golden sky/and the sweet silver song of a lark.” Unimaginably, Aretha Franklin has departed this plane and gone to that golden sky but—hallelujah!—there is a sweet silver song and the song was Aretha, is Aretha, and will always be Aretha, for hers is the power and the glory.

Amen.

Amen.

Amen.

Where it can be found

Jean Dufy, Joséphine Baker et le jazz band (1925)

I stumbled upon the art of Jean Dufy quite by accident: I follow a Twitter account that’s dedicated solely to posting images of art, and one day several of Dufy’s paintings popped up in my feed. I was immediately drawn to the vibrant, saturated colors—which reminded me of Chagall—and the themes of travel and music that recur in his work.

A site dedicated to Jean Dufy tells me he was one of eleven (!) children, born at the tail end of the 19th century. After a stint in the military, Dufy moved to Paris and by the 1920s was rubbing shoulders with luminaries from the worlds of painting, poetry, and music, including Picasso, Braque, Satie, Apollinaire, and Poulenc, not to mention his older brother, painter Raoul Dufy.

In the 1920s and 30s, Jean Dufy lived in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris and exhibited his work frequently. Throughout the 1950s he was a devoted traveler, painting scenes of Venice, Rome, Athens, and London. Dufy died in France at age 76, just two months after his wife passed away.

I have been looking online to see if any of Jean Dufy’s paintings are on display here in New York City and I’m not having much luck. Happily, thanks to the wonders of technology, we can feast our eyes on Dufy’s paintings in the virtual realm. I think it’s important to appreciate beauty where it can be found.

Jean Dufy, Venise

Jean Dufy, Spanish Steps, Rome ca. 1950-55

Jean Dufy, L’Andalouse

Jean Dufy, Venise, le palais des doges, ca. 1955-57

Jean Dufy, Paris, Montmartre

The Song Is You

“You’d never know it, but buddy I’m a kind of poet, and I’ve got a lot of things to say…”

He was seated at the piano, playing and singing “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” when I walked into Tula’s in September, 2001. “Who,” I thought, “is that?” How was it possible that, of all the singers and pianists in town, I had never met this particularly young and handsome one? As is wont to happen in the brash bloom of youth, our eyes met from across the room and that, as Rick famously said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I learned that Joshua was stranded in Seattle that week. He’d been visiting his family when the planes hit the World Trade Center in his adopted hometown of New York City, and all the flights were grounded, all the airports closed, so he couldn’t get back to his Harlem apartment. Not knowing quite what to do with ourselves in those frightening and disorienting days after the 9/11 attacks, we both sought sanctuary in the local jazz club.

When I moved to New York a couple of years later, Josh met me for dinner. His relaxed kindness told me that, even though I was broke and overwhelmed and had no idea whatsoever what in the hell I was doing, I had a friend in New York City. A while later, when Ray Passman heard me sit in with Bob Dorough at the Iridium and decided to “present” me in my first New York solo show at the Triad, I called Joshua to play piano. I was as green as grass and did everything wrong, but I still remember the gentle 12/8 feel Josh brought to our rendition of “Tis Autumn,” and how the room seemed to stand still for that tune.

He came with me once to my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, where we played a Christmas show; we duetted on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and switched the roles, with him singing, “I simply must go…” and rebuffing my wolfish advances. He stole the show, of course.

Josh had a way of showing up at exactly the right moment. I had a brief stint singing with a country band, and we played a gig on the Upper West Side one summer night in 2012. To my delight, Josh was in the audience. In fact, he may very well have been the audience. We caught up on the set break, and a few days later he sent me a note asking if I’d like to perform a holiday show with him that November in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where his brother had founded an orchestra. Josh opened that email by asking me, “How ya doing, cowgirl?” I gleefully accepted his invitation, and that autumn, we shared a wonderful weekend of barbecue and music.

Four years ago, another email appeared in my inbox, this time from Josh’s dad. I was in the elevator on my way up to my apartment when I checked my phone and read the news of Josh’s recent hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. No treatments could be undertaken or explored beyond keeping him comfortable. In a trance, I exited the elevator and tried, again and again, to turn my key in the lock. It wasn’t until a neighbor in the hallway said, not unkindly, “um, hello,” that I realized I’d gotten off on the wrong floor and was standing in front of a stranger’s door.

I am infinitely grateful for the time spent in the hospital with Josh and his loved ones in the days before his death. Even today, four years later, those hours are too surreal, too painful, too dear to write about. There was singing, there were tears, there was—somehow—laughter, and there was a palpable cloak of compassion enveloping us all that I, an avowed non-believer, can only describe as holy.

It is tempting to withhold forgiveness forever from a world that would silence Josh’s music so abruptly, so cruelly early; he was just thirty-nine years old. But the world doesn’t ask for forgiveness, and anyway, didn’t it give voice and breath and life to Josh’s song in the first place? Where does that leave us? What are we to do with ourselves in this perplexing and infuriating and beautiful life, overflowing with loss and tenderness?

Sing, I think. We are here to sing at full voice, to live right out loud, heedless of the occasional dissonance or cracked high note. And may our music, like Josh’s, be a balm, a window, a catalyst, and—above all—a gift for whomever is listening.

“New York is hopeful.”

It occurs to me that there are other towns. It occurs to me so violently that I say, at intervals, “Very well, if New York is going to be like this, I’m going to live somewhere else.” And I do—that’s the funny part of it. But then one day there comes to me the sharp picture of New York at its best, on a shiny blue-and-white Autumn day with its buildings cut diagonally in halves of light and shadow, with its straight neat avenues colored with quick throngs, like confetti in a breeze. Someone, and I wish it had been I, has said that “Autumn is the Springtime of big cities.” I see New York at holiday time, always in the late afternoon, under a Maxfield Parish sky, with the crowds even more quick and nervous but even more good-natured, the dark groups splashed with the white of Christmas packages, the lighted holly-strung shops urging them in to buy more and more. I see it on a Spring morning, with the clothes of the women as soft and as hopeful as the pretty new leaves on a few, brave trees. I see it at night, with the low skies red with the black-flung lights of Broadway, those lights of which Chesterton—or they told me it was Chesterton—said, “What a marvelous sight for those who cannot read!” I see it in the rain, I smell the enchanting odor of wet asphalt, with the empty streets black and shining as ripe olives. I see it—by this time, I become maudlin with nostalgia—even with its gray mounds of crusted snow, its little Appalachians of ice along the pavements. So I go back. And it is always better than I thought it would be.

dorothy-parker-1411-t-600x600-rwI suppose that is the thing about New York. It is always a little more than you had hoped for. Each day, there, is so definitely a new day. “Now we’ll start over,” it seems to say every morning, “and come on, let’s hurry like anything.”

London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it. There is excitement ever running its streets. Each day, as you go out, you feel the little nervous quiver that is yours when you sit in the theater just before the curtain rises. Other places may give you a sweet and soothing sense of level; but in New York there is always the feeling of “Something’s going to happen.” It isn’t peace. But, you know, you do get used to peace, and so quickly. And you never get used to New York.

-Dorothy Parker, “My Home Town”
1928

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Nature Girl?

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Clearly having a blast camping.

I read once that green was Duke Ellington’s least favorite color, because green, being the color of grass, reminded him of bucolic landscapes.  As an inveterate city-lover, the Duke preferred pavement.  I have no idea if that anecdote is true or not (and I happen to like the color green), but, like Duke, I’ve never really been one for country life.  I mean, just look at this picture from my teen years, taken during a salmon-fishing camping trip in Alaska.  The aquamarine waters of the Kenai River flowed just outside our camper door, and there wasn’t a glimmer of modern civilization for miles.  Don’t I look thrilled?

This summer, however, my happiest moments have been spent communing with nature…in distinctly urban surroundings, mind you.  There’s a unique beauty to green spaces that are cultivated with the express purpose of providing a respite from the din of the city.  Here, then, are a few places and experiences that promise even the most citified among us a moment of peace amid New York’s clatter and thrum.

Central Park IMG_2902
Okay, yes, I’ve started with the most obvious.  But sometimes it’s good to remember that we can be tourists in our own city.  Thanks to the largesse (and connections) of a good friend, I had the indescribable pleasure of attending Shakespeare in the Park (The Tempest) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park last month WITHOUT LINING UP FOR TICKETS AT 6 A.M., and I was literally speechless when the play ended.  The brilliance and power of Shakespeare’s poetry, combined with the changing colors of the night sky over Manhattan, fireflies twinkling overhead, and summer breezes wafting through the trees made for an unforgettable evening.

On another occasion, E. and I made an impromptu decision to spend an entire day wandering through our favorite parts of Central Park.  For me, that meant a trip to the reservoir and the northeast corner of the park, especially the Conservatory Gardens.  E., a native New Yorker, led us to Sheep’s Meadow for a sweet hour of people-watching and nostalgia. IMG_2905

Brooklyn Botanic Garden IMG_2930
Each spring, I make it a point to visit the BBG when the lilacs bloom.  Ranging from the whitest white to the deepest purple, the BBG boasts a vast array of lilacs.  I always look forward to joining my fellow winter-weary Brooklynites, as we bury our faces in the blossoms, breathing deeply the lilacs’ heady fragrance and the promise of summer.  This year, though, I (finally!) discovered that the BBG is free to the public every Tuesday, and I’ve taken to strolling through the gardens whenever weather and schedule permit.  A recent highlight was the moody, overcast afternoon I spent wandering through the riotously-in-bloom rose garden.

Tuesday Moon Bath Yoga and Pranayam: Evening Outdoor Yoga in Fort Greene Park
Okay, you guys, this is HANDS DOWN the most Brooklyn/Portlandia thing I’ve ever done, and you know what?  IT’S AWESOME.  While CrossFit die-hards grunt and pant nearby, we serenely stretch, chant, and breathe deeply as the sun sets over Brooklyn.  Kathryn is my favorite yoga teacher: smart and spiritual, without ever veering into the realm of preachiness or “woo.”  She teaches this by-donation class every Tuesday throughout the summer, and if you’re in the neighborhood, you should come.  You’ll leave feeling calm and rejuvenated. Yoga Collage Now that we’re in the middle of a heat wave, of course, I’ve got (air-conditioned) museums on my mind—the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series at MoMA, the Sargent exhibit at the Met, and the Sinatra retrospective at the Performing Arts Library—but that’ll be another post. What are your favorite verdant urban retreats?

Words & Music #7

They sat for a while listening to the sounds of the evening.  The whitecaps, gray with night, were hushed and nearly forgotten but the rumble of a distant train, the honk and squeal of automobiles and, underneath it all, the music of the cafés, each melody distinct–an accordion riff as ripe as Paris, an abandoned singer with the rain of Pissarro darkening every phrase, a battered hound of a piano–and each whisper, each shout, was a story that did not need words, just beauty and gravity.

-N.M. Kelby, White Truffles in Winter