Monet’s Water Lilies

Le Bassin des Nympheas, Claude Monet, 1904
Le Bassin des Nympheas, Claude Monet, 1904

This painting (or else another very similar Monet water lily painting) holds a special place in my memories. I saw it in person when I went to the Art Institute of Chicago with my art history class in college. It was the painting I chose to write about for class. I don’t remember the essay very well, but I do remember contemplating the distinctions (in this case, lack of distinctions) between abstraction and realism. It looks like a pond with water lilies in it. It also looks like an abstraction–a painting that has more to do with colors and brushstrokes than water lilies and water. It is in this gray area that I like to rest my thoughts. A place where memory and imagination, prayer and words from books swim freely together, unhindered by the time of day or the real people in the house with me. It’s not a complete dream-world; it’s somewhere between dreams and reality. It might be my favorite place to be.

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Sand, Smoke, Current

Upstairs in his room, he listened to the soft murmurs of conversation drifting through the floor vent, the turning of locks, water running in the bathroom. When all was silent except the creaking of the old house, he slipped down the stairs. In the garage, he fished a chrome flashlight from his father’s toolbox and lifted the shovel from its hook. Stars lit the trail and turned the sandpit into a shadowed moonscape. The only sound was the scuff of his rubber soles against the sand.

He knelt at the creek where his father had smoked and trained the flashlight along the dam and over the silvered pond.

— from the title story of Sand, Smoke, Current by Robert Vander Lugt, 2014.

Here’s a brand-new book of short stories worth reading. Inside these stories you’ll find a swirl of weather, nature, memories, lives, and relationships. You’ll visit cemeteries, parades, churches, beaches, to name a few. But mostly, you’ll be introduced to old men and women whose minds are filled with the past, boys with strange and determined ideas, grown men with feet mired in the past, present, and future. See how these people handle everyday life. Hear their thoughts, feel their pain and emptiness, wonder at the turns in their imaginations.

You can learn more about Robert Vander Lugt and his book here.

Spring Flowers in a Glass Vase

Spring Flowers in a Glass Vase by Jan van Kessel the Elder (b. 1626)
Spring Flowers in a Glass Vase by Jan van Kessel the Elder (b. 1626)

I painted with the children this morning. It has been awhile since I painted a picture. So there I was with tempera paints and shiny fingerpainting paper, painting the vase of flowers on our kitchen table. The end result was marvelous in the eyes of three certain critics… all age 6 and under:) Today I reflect about flower bouquets. They are beautiful, for a short time. They brighten up a room, both because the flowers are bright and because the occasion for giving them is special. This bouquet by van Kessel showcases the minute details in a flower, and I noticed that while I painted this morning! Flowers are intricate. An artist must either be very careful and exact, or she must find a shortcut for representing flowers. There are other decisions to make: do I include the drooping buds, the brown-edged blooms? We’ve had the bouquet for a week, but I decided to paint it as if it was fresh. Jan van Kessel chose to include butterflies, which reminds me that flowers provide food for some creatures, not only beauty.

Even reflecting on a vase of flowers can be complicated business. I prefer a real bouquet to a painting of one; it’s more about the moment and the occasion, less about what a flower actually looks like.

Where Fiction Fails

I began a search for a female character in a book or story who is truly beautiful. I mean beautiful in an all-over way: lovely, gracious, godly, generous, intelligent, wise, faithful, strong, etc. I met one such lady in real life, and I know she is all of the above because her life is filled with tragedy and her beautiful qualities shine through despite trials an average person would melt under. She is a combination of Job and the Proverbs 31 woman. Yes, I can relate to her in biblical terms. But in fiction? I can only think of Mark Twain’s women. And they are, for the most part, stereotypes. An ideal woman. Flat, not round. Other female characters might rise above their flaws (Sonya in Crime and Punishment, Jo in Little Women, Anne in Anne of Green Gables), but they are interesting because they are so flawed, not because they are a cut above the rest. I certainly haven’t plumbed the depths of literature, but the fact that this initial search comes up empty makes me wonder if fiction has failed at portraying this one type of woman.

If you can think of a truly beautiful-on-the-inside female character in a work of fiction, please let me know! I’ll keep you posted if some are found.

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, Edgar Degas, c. 1881
The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, Edgar Degas, c. 1881

My little girls have an interest in ballet. To determine if the interest has more to do with the pretty tutus and shoes, I bought a DVD featuring a ballet class for little girls (and did not buy the cute little outfits). We have watched it twice now, pointing our toes, standing tall, and stretching muscles we don’t normally stretch. It’s fun! Degas had a deep interest in watching dancers and their movements. I am beginning to understand why… when each movement is perfected and put together with others, it becomes a work of art, intentional beauty, practiced grace.

Night Song

Among rocks, I am the loose one,
among arrows, I am the heart,
among daughters, I am the recluse,
among sons, the one who dies young.

Among answers, I am the question,
between lovers, I am the sword,
among scars, I am the fresh wound,
among confetti, the black flag.

Among shoes, I am the one with the pebble,
among days, the one that never comes,
among the bones you find on the beach
the one that sings was mine.

–by Lisel Mueller, b. 1924

What rhythm! I just read this poem for the first time. It makes me want to write a poem. Perhaps I’ll begin it like this: Among night songs, I am the Mueller one. (Or maybe not). Off to write now…

Hunters in the Snow

Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565
Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

Here are people who know how to live in winter. I ought to study it and take notes. I’d like to be outdoors more when the temperatures are not extremely cold. The kids and I went out this morning, and my three-year-old didn’t even last ten minutes. She said her socks were wet. (They weren’t.) So back inside I went. Later today, while I made supper, she went out with her older brother, just stomping around in the crusty snow, enjoying herself in the pre-dark of a winter day. When she came back in, I could feel the cold fresh air hanging around her like a cloak, brightening her face and mood. I wanted to put that on myself.