I confessed to my philosophy mentor last week that I am not interested in painting or sculpture right now — just words. He responded by saying that he himself left making for writing many years ago, but maybe he would return to drawing, who knows. Words, he said are so close to us, you just say the word elephant and in a moment the image is there. And words can also in a moment reveal themselves as just words. They are only a thin veil between us and the abyss of meaning and meaninglessness below.
A scene lurked in my mind. A few years back, I was traipsing through San Miguel De Allende, uncoincidentally on a painting retreat. On a break from the studio, I wandered to a cobbled churchyard, where from a humble, wooden bench in the shade, I saw an epic tree, unusual for the area. In its wrangled branches were surrealist swaths of pure white, which to my delight were tussling and preening and honking — egrets. As I moved under the tree, I said good morning to the weathered, bent, workman washing the stones in the nearby driveway. This welcomed him to stop his toil and commune in the sight of hundreds of birds and their nestlings crowded onto this one tree, this cathedral of bird life, hymnal bird hums, and unreal feathery white light.
On the ground at my feet was a grey lump, a dead baby egret whose coarse feathers were just emerging from fluffy down, with a twisted neck terminating at a beak open in an eternal gasp. The man saw my tragic discovery, and since Spanish is unavailable to me, I uttered impotently, “bébé mort.” With eyes that have understood much more about life than mine, he faced me and offered plainly, “Que vida.” Not quite sure what it meant, I answered him, but now know I will never fully comprehend it: que vida.
And though I tried to paint the pathetic little creature back at the studio, perhaps because of my technical shortcomings, it never matched the man, the tone in his foreign words, the moment, the elusiveness of “que vida.”
A somewhat well-known, poet, Wislawa Szymborska, dedicated to “que vida,” left life itself this week, and I am on the trail of her lifelong attempt to put it all to word. In her 1996 Nobel Prize Speech, she paradoxically leaves me with a striking image:
“The world — whatever we might think when we’re terrified by its vastness and our own impotence or when we’re embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants (for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain); whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets dead, still dead, we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose life span is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world — it is astonishing.”
Somehow she tells me it doesn’t matter what tool or tongue I use to insert an image or two of my own into this “measureless theatre.” I don’t know the ending: Just enjoy the show.
Today’s Advice: “The next day
Promises to be sunny,
Although those still living
Should bring umbrellas.”
– Wislawa Szymborska, “The Day After –Without Us”