It has for some time now been the fashion to say that we are in a morass, and to attempt to get out of the morass by attacking Romanticism; and I am going to do this too.
[Iris Murdoch]

Desire To Fly from R&A Collaborations on Vimeo.

[Thank you, Phaedra.]

Today in an essay about Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach’s use of hands, I found a wonderful passage from a letter by Barlach. And I found a photo of this sculpture. There is a dignity in the way Barlach portrays this woman — somehow the abjectness of her posture doesn’t feel like a slur on her, or a condescension. And the beauty of the lines doesn’t feel like he’s taking poverty lightly and making it pretty to look at. Instead, this sculpture feels to me like a reflection on how helpless we all are as human beings, how powerless we are almost all of the time to shift the world and keep it from hurting us, or hurting who and what we love. And yet we are here; and somehow the beauty of the lines and of the bronze say that it matters that we’re here, even though we are so fragile. And that it is right to show up asking for mercy.

Barlach_Bettlerin

[Russische Bettlerin (Russian Beggarwoman), Ernst Barlach]

„Ob man in seiner Kunst, immer auf das unermeßliche Elend hinweisen muß? Gewiß, wenn man das Müssen fühlt. Vorerst will man gestalten, wohl dem, der den Ort findet, in dem seine Fähigkeit zur Gestaltung sich heimisch fühlt. Vielleicht könnte man sagen, wer nicht andern helfen kann, tut wenigstens sein Teil, wenn er aufrüttelt und erschüttert. Der eine so, der eine anders. Vorübergehen an dem Grausen, das um Hilfe ruft, und dann irgend was Belanglos-Niedliches machen, ist schäbig.“

(Must one, in one’s art, always point to immeasurable misery? Certainly, if one feels the compulsion. First one wants to give shape, and it is well for the one who finds the place where his capacity for giving shape feels at home. Maybe one could say that those who can’t help others at least do their part if they shake up and unsettle. One this way, the one differently. Walking by the thing that is awful, and that is calling for help, and then making some irrelevant-cute thing, that’s shabby.”)

[Ernst Barlach, letter to Adolf Scheer, Güstrowm Feb. 26 1930, in: Ernst Barlach, Die Briefe II. 1925-1938, Friedrich Droß, München, 1968, quoted by Gudrun Fritsch.]

(this way, prematurely)

[Well done, VW. And thanks, Joel.]

Ingredients:

one young man
one empty honey jar
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

serves: 20
preparation time: varies

[This is a perfect place for the German “man nehme,” for which the best translation I can come up with is that it’s a cross between “take” and “one taketh,” — it’s instructional, slightly formal and archaic, but totally usable. And impersonal. Like “man sieht sich,” which means literally “one sees each other,” and is the kind of thing you say to someone whom you’re either actually going to see again in the natural course of things, or whose company you do not enjoy enough to seek it out in any active way. And this tension makes it hilarious (or I think it does).]

So, then: Man nehme the young man. This works best if you are on easy speaking terms with the young man. If you are not, take steps. If you are, pour the cream into the jar, which should have bits of honey left in it (if it is clean, add a teaspoon of something sweet). Hand the jar to the young man, and promise him pumpkin pie with whipped cream if he shakes the jar well. Do not specify how long he should shake it.

Now ask him a question about his favorite childhood movie (any question will do).

Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream

Acquire a slice of pumpkin pie. Remove the butter from the jar and store it. Repeat the above, minus the question about the movie, and while watching the jar closely. Reclaim the jar after its contents thicken but before they turn golden.

If I go for a while without reading this poem, it boils down in my memory to “that tender poem about the poet braiding his wife’s hair.” Then when I read it again, it always leaves me with that tender image, yes, but it also leaves me sad. The voice is so calm in the face of death — “There will come a day / one of us will have to imagine this.” This poem makes me realize that much of my anxiety (over failures in relationship, over things I care about deeply going wrong, over feeling like I am getting life wrong) are almost like consolations in the face of reality: that even in a human love that is going right, there is death, which is coming to each of us, and usually not at the same time. There will be grief, that big, never-again-on-this-earth grief; the question is only when.

The other line that struck me again in this reading was “How I wish we didn’t hate those years / while we lived them.” This feels like a hopeful and good description of the thing that sometimes gets called “nostalgia,” that process of remembering something that felt awful at the time and having a sense of sweetness and goodness in the memory that I totally missed in the experience itself. I am grateful to Li-Young Lee for saying the line he does say here, rather than some dismissive or cynical line like “and isn’t it funny how memory edits the hellish times so that in retrospect they’re sweet.” What he says feels like compassion to his younger self, like a longing: if only you could have seen then, while you were living it, what I see now in those moments. And of course none of my younger selves do get a chance to see this, because they are past. But my self now, which will be a young self some day, does get a chance to hear them. And (like Emily’s farewell to the sunflowers and to hot coffee and sleeping and waking up, in Our Town) Li-Young Lee’s wish for their younger selves here stops me enough to see that there are things in my life now that will, in retrospect, feel almost unbearably sweet. And his wish helps me wonder: how can I live now with my heart open to the things that memory will call lovely?

1.
We two sit on our bed, you
between my legs, your back to me, your head
slightly bowed, that I may brush and braid
your hair. My father
did this for my mother,
just as I do for you. One hand
holds the hem of you hair, the other
works the brush. Both hands climb
as the strokes grow
longer, until I use not only my wrists,
but my arms, then my shoulders, my whole body
rocking in a rower’s rhythm, a lover’s
even time, as the tangles are undone,
and brush and bare hand run the thick,
fluent length of your hair, whose wintry scent
comes, a faint, human musk.

2.
Last night the room was so cold
I dreamed we were in Pittsburgh again, where winter
persisted and we fell asleep in the last seat
of the 71 Negley, dark mornings going to work.
How I wish we didn’t hate those years
while we lived them.
Those were days of books,
days of silences stacked high
as the ceiling of that great, dim hall
where we studied. I remember
the thick, oak tabletops, how cool
they felt against my face
when I lay my head down and slept.

3.
How long your hair has grown.

Gradually, December.

4.
There will come a day
one of us will have to imagine this: you,
after your bath, crosslegged on the bed, sleepy, patient,
while I braid your hair.

5.
Here, what’s made, these braids, unmakes
itself in time, and must be made
again, within and against
time. So I braid
your hair each day.
My fingers gather, measure hair,
hook, pull and twist hair and hair.
Deft, quick, they plait,
weave, articulate lock and lock, to make
and make these braids, which point
the direction of my going, of all our continuous going.
And though what’s made does not abide,
my making is steadfast, and, besides, there is a making
of which this making-in-time is just a part,
a making which abides
beyond the hands which rise in the combing,
the hands which fall in the braiding,
trailing hair in each stage of its unbraiding.

6.
Love, how the hours accumulate. Uncountable.
The trees grow tall, some people walk away
and diminish forever.
The damp pewter days slip around without warning
and we cross over one year and one year.

[Li-Young Lee, from Rose]

Today, more from Gestures Toward a Theology of Sleep:

7. Why counting sheep? Where did we get that from? I’m not saying it has implicit Christological undertones, but…. doesn’t it? And what do they count in cultures that don’t have sheep?

8. “There is no hope for a civilization which starts each day to the sound of an alarm clock.” – Unknown

surely the darkness (detail from Even the Darkness)

Dear Portland Friends,

From now till August 11th, I have paintings hanging in the atrium at Imago Dei, at 1400 SE Ankeny. On Thursday, July 31st from 6 to 9 pm, I am having an opening — there will be snacks (including six boxes of Miles Reck’s famous cookies: peppermint and chocolate toffee. come for those if you don’t like paintings.). There will be art, and from the yeses I’ve gotten on attendance so far, I can promise excellent company.

Above is a detail from the show’s title painting, “Even the Darkness.”

Please feel free to pass this invitation on. Friends and children are welcome. I’d love to see you if you can make it, and if not and you’d still like to see the show, the building is open on Sundays during services.

Yours,
Steph

Chaos, German Style

[with thanks to Antonia Ruppel, via Erich Merkel]