Monday, December 22, 2014

Do You Surround Your Writing? And with What?

My wife and I have likely always been interested in art, but it’s become something more than an interest in the last few years.

In 1999, during a belated 25th anniversary trip to Holland and France, we made sure to see the Rijksmseum in Amsterdam, if for no other reason than to see Rembrandt’s the Night Watch, then simply on display but today in its own special gallery. In Paris, we had to contend with the state workers (including museum workers) staging wildcat strikes (we quickly learned what “en strike” meant) but through constant rearranging of our schedule and a careful eye for what looked opened still managed to see The Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay and the Picasso Museum. Later that same year, on a business trip to Brussels, I hurried on arrival to see the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, despite severe jetlag.

In 2005, our week in Montreal included the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Three years later, while in Chicago to see my wife’s favorite singing duo Chad & Jeremy, we managed to find time for a joint exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago – Edward Hopper and Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light.

For the last three years, we’ve spent two weeks in England, mostly London, and discovered that art and new exhibitions never stop in that great international city.

In 2012, it was Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at the Tate Modern; the Turner collection at the Tate Britain; the Courtauld Institute of Art; the Ashmolean in Oxford; and the National Gallery. Perhaps the highlight of all of it for me was finding a painting I fell in love with at the Tate Modern: Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton (1928). In 2013, we were able to see Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure at the National Gallery on its closing day; The Queen: Art & Image at the National Portrait Gallery (and the gallery itself); and L.S. Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at the Tate Britain.

This year, we were able to Late Turner: Painting Set Free at the Tate Britain; the Wallace Collection (including The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals); and the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. We had planned to see the John Constable exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum but my back problems (and the subsequent two days of vacation plans lost) forced us to drop it from the itinerary. We did manage to get to Blenheim Palace and not only see the palace but the Ai Weiwei exhibition there as well.

And this year, we didn’t have to travel at all to see a wonderful exhibition at our own St. Louis Art Museum, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from LeGray to Monet.

Yes, art has become increasingly important to us. I’ve read that this is not uncommon s you get older. Perhaps it has to do with more leisure time (and grown children). But, for me, it also has to do with something else, and it took me a while to figure it out.

Art surrounds my writing.

Music has been a powerful influence on my two novels, but art surrounds virtually everything I write. I read a lot about artists; I love non-fiction works on painting thefts and frauds (not to mention movies like The Monuments Men). I just finished reading a book on the art of Anselm Kiefer and am currently reading one on the paintings and life of Edward Hopper. And it was not a coincidence that the Sarah, the heroine of Dancing Priest and A Light Shining, is an artist, and that her painting gets caught up in her crisis of faith.

This idea of what surrounds your writing is not an idle one. In On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, Charity Craig (co-author with Ann Kroeker) says this: “If I’m not surrounding myself with people and books and experiences that inspire and connect with me, I may be left wondering what to write about.”

For me, it’s art that surrounds my writing.

Illustrations: Top, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, oil on canvas by Claude Monet (1874, St. Louis Art Museum); lower right: Marguerite Kelsey, oil on canvas by Meredith Frampton (1928; Tate Modern); lower left, The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals (1624; The Wallace Collection). 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

In the beginning was

In the beginning
was the word
was the light

not only was
but is

set against,
shining into,
the darkness

the interior of darkness
the darkness of the heart

darkness remained,
neither understanding
nor overcoming
the light

and the witness
the prophet
comes to testify
the precursor
comes before
testifies what is
and what comes after

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas in Harvard Square

The St. Paul’s Choir School is the only Catholic boys’ choir school in America, and it sits right on Harvard Square. The choir has recorded its first CD, Christmas in Harvard Square. The choir is led by John Robinson, a former assistant at Canterbury Cathedral in Britain.

It’s classical, liturgical – and beautiful.

A story about the choir and the CD can be found at First Things.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Card Lists Tell Stories

My wife and I undertake Christmas cards as something of a team effort, dividing them between us. She handles her family, I handle mine, we generally split friends, and I do the ones meant for work.

About 5 a.m. on a recent morning, I was doing my card list when I realized we had quite a personal history sitting in front of me, in the form of lists. We keep them by years, and the lists go back to 1977. Technically, they go back to 1973, our first Christmas as a married couple, because the 1977 list is based on the first list we did – taken from our wedding invitations.

In 1977, we were living in Houston; she was working for the Houston Chronicle and I was a speechwriter at Shell Oil. Earl Campbell of the University of Texas had just won the Heisman Trophy (it was a big deal; this was Texas); Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta in white disco polyester was just opening; Egypt and Israel were holding their first formal peace talks ever – in Cairo.

And we were spending our first Christmas in a new townhouse that we had moved into in July.  I even remember the street – Arncliffe Drive in northwest Houston.

In 1977, I wrote the Christmas card list on a ruled steno pad. The names were a combination of colleagues at Shell Oil where I worked; family on both sides; and friends.

A lot of our friends in Houston lived in apartments; we were all 20-somethings and few of us had the wherewithal to buy our own homes.

Seeing the family names on the list is what now gives me pause. Most of them have passed away. My parents. My wonderful aunt who lived in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans (and would survive Hurricane Katrina with my mother). An uncle in Alabama. My mother’s next-door neighbor who was her treasured friend; the lady died this year, two months after my mother. My grandmother and aunts in Shreveport. My aunt and godmother. Aunts and uncles of my wife. A lady I worked with at Shell who had once been manager of the Manhattan Chess Club.

I’m not sure what has happened to all of the names on the list, like my favorite journalism teacher at LSU, and many of my work colleagues at Shell (some, I know, have passed away). Friends from church in Houston. Others slipped into the fog of years only to be rediscovered on Facebook, like a couple we met when we worked at the Beaumont Enterprise.

Each name is a story. I took three journalism courses (two in introductory news reporting and one in the history of journalism) and two independent study courses from that professor at LSU. He was an incredible teacher; he taught us how to work amid chaos and noise and meet deadlines by singing in the classroom or doing calisthenics while we feverishly finished assignments. He gave me a B+ on my first assignment, with a note reading “not bad for a cub.” He also weeded out the less serious students by giving automatic Fs for a misspelled word, a factual error, and errors in grammar and punctuation (we lost 70 percent of our class after the first semester).

A few years later, he left LSU, and we lost touch. He’d be in late 80s now.

I look over those names, and I can remember work events, parties, situations, issues. I look at the names of family and see the people who helped shaped me and my own family in uncountable ways.

The names remind me that the past is still with us, always with us.

Photograph: vintage Christmas card via A Parallel Universe

Thursday, December 18, 2014

I walked from the church

I walked from the church
to the street, the war zone,
the cold, the fear, the despair
of darkness, of the street.

The wounded and dying
reached toward me,
the sick clutching
at my ankles, weeping.

I walked from the church,
the light wasn't following
the light was leading
shining in the darkness.

I walked from the church
into the street, seeing
the ruins around me,
and knelt.

Photograph by Lilla Frerichs via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wallace Stevens and Walking the Landscape

I’m reading, or actually rereading, Living in the Nature Poem by Mary Harwell Sayler, and I’m taken by this poem:

Landscape Loved by Wallace Stevens

If you could fly over \ yards and yards
of green lace lining the Gulf and Space
Coasts, you would see low-lying bands
of land seeding the sea with pockets blue –
beaded with water, and you’d wonder how
one more word could fit into the shell –
shaped pattern, hemmed with canals, and
not unravel beneath the weight of so many
people pushing the delicate fabric, poking
the intricate design, picking at flaws not
found in winter-bound spools of wool.

That landscape is more than familiar; it’s personal. I grew up near the Gulf Coast; I’m familiar with the Space Coast. I’ve flown over area enough to recognize those “low-lying bands of land seeding the sea.” And I know those coastal skies, close cousins to the skies you find in the great Dutch paintings.

To continue reading, please see my post today at TweetspeakPoetry.

Photograph: One of the hiking trails at Shaw Nature Reserve, southwest of St. Louis.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lisa Carter’s “Beneath a Navajo Moon”

For years I was a fan of Tony Hillerman (1925-2008), author of the Navajo Tribal Police mysteries of Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee. The detail, the story lines, the history – the novels were extraordinarily well done.

I confess: I started reading Lisa Carter’s Beneath a Navajo Moon (published earlier this year) wondering if it was up to the Hillerman standard. It, too, is a story involving the Navajo Tribal Police, but it falls into the Christian fiction genre, whereas Hillerman wrote for general mystery fans.

As it turns out, Carter meets that standard, which is no small thing.

Erin Dawson is a young cultural anthropologist working in Cedar Canyon, Arizona, on an internship. The town and region is part of the large Navajo reservation territory. She is the adopted child of a long line of missionaries, most of whom are serving in Peru, Papua New Guinea and places far from North America. And she is trying to find a long-lost relative of her adopted family, Olivia Thornton, who was kidnapped from a missionary post in the region in 1906, escaped captivity, and then returned, never to be heard from again. In fact, Erin isn’t even sure Olivia actually returned or died trying to.

Adam Silverthorn is a Navajo Tribal policeman, torn between his family’s Christian faith and his grandfather’s power-hungry ambitions to seize control of the territory and declare independence. He’s also a key player in a drug sting operation, feigning a love interest in the local museum curator who’s up to her eyeballs in drug trafficking. Adam has a reputation for being a playboy, his good looks attracting women in droves. Including Erin, who struggles against the attraction. And Adam finds himself attracted to this adopted daughter of missionaries.

Lisa Carter
The heart of the story is the on-again, off-again attraction between Adam and Erin, with his history and family pulling in one direction and her family (especially her mother) pulling Erin to work in missions overseas. Punctuating the relationship is the violence of radical Navajo politics and the drug scene.

Carter tells a good story, and she has infused it with meticulous research. The reader not only gets an interesting story; also offered up is a fair amount of history of Christian missions in the region (not one of Christianity’s better moments) and the cultural and spiritual struggle today.

Beneath a Navajo Moon is a compelling read. And while most of Carter’s readers are likely women (the primary audience for most Christian fiction), this is a story that should appeal to men as well.

Photograph by Ronald Carlson via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.