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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August: looking back, looking ahead

Last month, I painted my toenails a bright orange-red and flew to the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico to celebrate my birthday in the company of a few people I love dearly. I drove (!) for the first time (!) in fifteen years(!) and ate lots and lots of chips and guacamole. After a dinner and overnight stay at Rancho de Chimayo, we traveled to Taos, where we stayed in a charming casita with brightly painted walls and Southwestern decor. We ate our breakfasts every morning at the little outdoor table in the backyard and grilled in the rain.

One highlight of the trip was touring Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, where she lived and worked, her life force and creativity undimmed, until her death at age 98. We saw the wall with a door that compelled O’Keeffe to spend fifteen years trying to buy the adobe house from the Catholic church and which later became the subject of many of O’Keeffe’s paintings. Among other things, we learned that O’Keeffe paid for the local kids’ Little League uniforms, and that while she was not a particularly good driver, she was a decidedly adventurous one. O’Keeffe also had a long standing tradition of exchanging practical jokes with her groundskeeper, whose grandson oversees the still-functioning garden to this day.

Scenes from Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu and yours truly, daring to drive.

Looking out across the vast landscape at Pedernal Mountain—the endless sky, dotted with clouds; the red earth; the dusty green sagebrush—I was awed by what O’Keeffe described as “…the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding…the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.”

A few days later we took a much shorter trip to meet another fascinating woman: Millicent Rogers. An East Coast socialite by birth (her grandfather founded Standard Oil, for crying out loud), Rogers retreated to New Mexico in the early 1940s following a painful breakup with Clark Gable. She collected and designed Southwestern-style jewelry and championed Native American causes. Millicent Rogers suffered from fragile health her entire life–she died at just 50 years old from an aneurysm–but she left behind a vast collection of jewelry and art, much of which is housed in the intimate, welcoming museum that bears her name.

I enjoyed looking at the museum’s beautifully curated exhibitions and learning more about Millicent Rogers’s glamorous life and aesthetic gifts. But the most emotionally resonant piece at the museum, for me, came in the form of a letter Rogers wrote to her son shortly before her death. Generous, wise, and with more than a touch of mysticism, Rogers’s words continue to reverberate in my heart:

Did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the Earth, so that I felt the Sun on my Surface and the rain. I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon, under me, rivers ran. And against me were the tides. The waters of rain sank into me. And I thought if I stretched out my hands they would be Earth and green would grow from me. And I knew that there was no reason to be lonely that one was everything, and Death was as easy as the rising sun and as calm and natural—that to be enfolded in Earth was not an end but part of oneself, part of every day and night that we lived, so that Being part of the Earth one was never alone. And all the fear went out of me—with a great, good stillness and strength.

If anything should happen to me now, ever, just remember all this. I want to be buried in Taos with the wide sky—Life has been marvelous, all the experiences good and bad I have enjoyed, even pain and illness because out of it so many things were discovered. One has so little time to be still, to lie still and look at the Earth and the changing colours and the Forest—and the voices of people and clouds and light on water, smells and sound and music and the taste of wood smoke in the air.

Life is absolutely beautiful if one will disassociate oneself from noise and talk and live according to one’s inner light. Don’t fool yourself more than you can help. Do what you want—do what you want knowingly. Anger is a curtain that people pull down over life so that they can only see through it dimly—missing all the savor, the instincts—the delight—they feel safe only when they can down someone.  And if one does that they end by being too many, more than one person, and life is dimmed—blotted and blurred!—I’ve had a most lovely life to myself—I’ve enjoyed it as thoroughly as it could be enjoyed. And when my time comes, no one is to feel that I have lost anything of it—or be too sorry—I’ve been in all of you—and will go on Being. So remember it peacefully—take all the good things that your life put there in your eyes—and they, your family, children, will see through your eyes. My love to all of you.

In August I…
Blogged about: July. Aretha Franklin.

Watched: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Blazing Saddles. Classic films, and fun to revisit as an adult. Also: Karen Allen! Madeline Kahn!

Read: The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker. An extremely funny, well written meditation on poetry and writer’s block. Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes. I wanted to love this book—I like Mayes’s literary voice and am always happy to read anything about a plucky heroine putting down roots in Italy—but this was nowhere near the caliber of her non-fiction writing. It was kind of like a Nancy Meyers film in book form.

Listened to: Chet Baker, It Could Happen to You. There is no separation whatsoever between Chet’s playing and his singing. Chris Flory, Chris Byars, and Neal Miner, live at Mezzrow. I had the honor of sitting in for a tune with this trio at my favorite club…but mostly I just sipped my cocktail and grinned while they played elegant, swinging renditions of beautiful standards. Long live live jazz!

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

Don’t knock the hustle.

It’s happening.  October is drawing to a close, and we’re entering that time of year when everything seems to accelerate mercilessly.  My schedule through the end of the year is, happily, packed with lots of great gigs, like this one, this one, this one, and this one.  I’ve also been hired by a composer to record his (very challenging) original music in December, and I’m happy to have locked down a New Year’s Eve gig, as well.  Throw in a smattering of swing and country music gigs around town, and, well, my palms are sweating just thinking about it all.  Oh, and did I mention that I’m also doing postproduction on my first solo album?  As soon as that’s finished, a whole new phase of busy-ness will begin.

Lest I sound ungrateful, please let me be clear: I am so thankful for my full-to-overflowing calendar!  Not too long ago, I was waiting tables full time, attending school full time, and doing gigs whenever and wherever I could squeeze them in.  My calendar was full then, too, but not with things I really wanted to be doing.  In between attending classes and feeding the proverbial thronging masses at the restaurant, I dreamed of being able to focus exclusively on music and leave the constant hustle behind.  Ha!

Now, faced with a schedule of symphonies, swing bands, studio sessions, and completing my own record, I find that everything–and nothing–has changed.  Gone are the endless subway commutes to Brooklyn College, and these days, the only dinners I serve are at my own table.  But that old hustle has been replaced by a new one: spending countless hours at the computer doing networking and correspondence, hauling my cumbersome PA system up and down subway stairs, and many other mundane tasks.

Here’s what I wish I’d known back when I was a waitress/student/aspiring singer: the hustle never goes away, it just transforms.  And if you keep hustling, you’ll be transformed, too.

Foodie Tuesday: Locusts & Casserole

I was at home when the earthquake hit last week.  I grew up in Alaska, so the sensation of the earth’s rolling and shaking was at once familiar and frightening.  A couple of major personal upheavals coincided with the earthquake, so all of my foundations were rocked.  “When it rains, it pours,” I thought, then turned on the television to find that I was absolutely correct: Hurricane Irene was headed directly our way.  I phoned my mother-in-law to commiserate. “Earthquakes, hurricanes, all this other mishigas…oy, what’s next?” she asked.  Only half-kidding, I replied, “Locusts.”

As my post-earthquake jitters ebbed, I paced the apartment, trying to think of some way to be useful.  I felt helpless, knowing full well that I could control neither the impending storm nor the knock-the-wind-out-of-us events that were unfolding.  However, I am not descended from Midwestern women for nothing: this week called for a casserole.  No high-tone bechamel or fancy-schmancy cheese would do for this family dinner.  No, these literal and figurative natural disasters called for the big guns of nostalgic comfort food: Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, frozen peas, shredded cheddar, and canned tuna.

Later that evening, we gathered around the table and found a measure of solace in the homey, humble flavors of tuna noodle casserole.  Unsettled by the events of the week and bracing ourselves for what lay ahead, we said little.  Words felt inadequate and small talk was impossible, so instead of talking, we took second helpings.  And third.

A week later, the worst of the storm seems to have passed.  Hurricane Irene largely spared our corner of New York, and the turbulent life events that were so unnerving just a few days ago seem much more manageable now.  Last week’s casserole didn’t solve any of our problems, but the companionship and comfort of a shared meal fortified our bodies and spirits.

No matter how hard we may try to protect ourselves from life’s inevitable earthquakes and hurricanes, the stubborn truth persists: security is an illusion.  That’s just life.  But on this clear, late-summer day, I am happy to report that not a single locust is in sight.

Tuna Noodle Casserole (serves 4 hungry adults in need of comfort)

2 cans Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup
2 cans tuna, drained
12 oz. noodles (macaroni, penne, bow-tie pasta), cooked al dente
1 C frozen peas, cooked
1/2 C mild cheddar (more or less to taste)
1/2 C milk
1 C bread crumbs (panko works great here)

-Pre-heat oven to 350°.
-Combine soup, tuna, noodles, peas, cheddar, & milk in a large bowl and transfer to a large buttered casserole dish.
-Toast the panko with some butter until golden brown.
-Top casserole with the panko and the grated parmesan and bake for half an hour, or until golden & bubbly.
-Share with people you love and be of good courage.

Blue Jeans & Bagels

At about this time last year, my doctor found a lump and recommended a sonogram. She was just being cautious, she said, and told me not to worry about it. Nonetheless, I was subsumed by dread and worry in the weeks that followed. When the tests revealed nothing troublesome, I gave thanks for a healthy vessel, renewed my gym membership, and vowed to never again disparage my body for its “imperfections.”

Fast-forward to the present day. I’ve been exercising regularly and incorporating more vegetables and lean protein into my diet. My body is decidedly more streamlined, and the winter blues that have dogged me for months seem to finally be dissipating. All this to say, I was feeling pretty good about myself last week when I reached into my closet and retrieved a pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in quite some time. Years, actually. But I was optimistic. I’d been working out! I’d been eating right! Those jeans were about to come out of retirement!

My optimism coughed, sputtered and was finally extinguished as I sucked in my stomach and cursed under my breath, wrenching the jeans over my hips with considerable effort. I managed to button them, but seeing as how the “overstuffed-sausage-in-a-denim-casing” look doesn’t seem to be in vogue this spring, I returned the jeans to the closet, feeling somewhat defeated.

Then I remembered the apprehension I felt last year as I walked through the linoleum hallways of the hospital, looking for the radiology department. I reflected on the relief that flooded my senses when the doctor called to tell me that everything looked just fine. I reminded myself that brave and tenacious souls the world over are facing real crises, so who did I think I was, feeling defeated (defeated, for chrissake!) by a pair of jeans?!

I realized that I had a choice to make. I could redouble my efforts at the gym and forever ban bagels in an attempt to be lean and mean, or I could decide that “lean” and “mean” are, in fact, not admirable qualities, toss the damned jeans in the Goodwill pile and go have a bagel.

Wearing a pair of jeans that fit just right, I had a toasted everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. It was everything I hoped it would be.

We’re off to see the Wizard…

“…if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!” –Dorothy Gale

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” –Buddha

When I was a child, I watched The Wizard of Oz on television every year. MGM’s classic film never failed to transport me into a Technicolor fantasy of singing, dancing, and old Hollywood glamour.

Me at 13, trying my best to channel Judy Garland

Me at 13, trying my best to channel Judy Garland

At 13, I was able to channel my obsession with Judy Garland’s singing and acting into a character study when I played Dorothy in my high school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. Getting to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” night after night gave definition and purpose to my nebulous yet insistent dream of a career in the performing arts.

All these years later, I am struck anew by the beauty and universality of L. Frank Baum’s allegory. Buddhism teaches us that, whether we realize it or not, all of our fears, doubts, and frustrations are just momentary obfuscations of our inherent Buddha nature. In other words, we are already whole, eternal beings. Boundless compassion is our natural state. The dharma also reveals that the difficult circumstances of our lives are, in fact, our best teachers; our difficulties provide us with the opportunity to free ourselves from fear and suffering.

The Wizard of OzIn a Buddhist sense, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are just like most of us. The four vagabonds travel through an illusory realm, believing themselves to be incomplete. After an arduous journey fraught with peril, the four friends arrive at their destination only to discover that the salvation they’d been tirelessly pursuing was present within themselves from the start.

Watching the movie, we understand that the Scarecrow had always been smart, the Tin Man was tender-hearted long before his audience with the Wizard, and the Cowardly Lion was valiant when it came to protecting his friends, despite his protestations to the contrary.

1939-glindaUpon learning that Dorothy had always had the power to return to Kansas, the Scarecrow asks Glinda the Good Witch why she hadn’t simply told Dorothy how to get home. Glinda laughs merrily, “She wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.” Or, as the Buddha said, “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.”

The Wizard of Oz turns 70 this year, yet its lessons are as timely as ever: we never have to look outside ourselves for wholeness. Our intelligence, compassion, and courage are intrinsic to our very being. Finally, the journey of this life is beautiful, mysterious, and occasionally very frightening; we might as well make the trip in a fabulous pair of shoes.ruby_slippers-thumb-430x322