Shivaratri & Lincoln’s Birthday: February 12
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Shivaratri & Lincoln’s Birthday: February 12


I follow the Hindu festivals, much as I observe the Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas. Any excuse to pray and meditate! Any pretext for bringing myself into the Presence of this moment! The cycle of holidays through the year elevates human life, takes us out of the pedestrian and provokes reflection.

So today, Feb 12, is a collision of Shiva’s Great Night (Shivaratri) and his wedding to Parvati with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Shiva is the god of dissolution, the one in whom the Universe sleeps after destruction and before the next cycle of creation. Abraham Lincoln is the president who dissolved the bonds of slavery. Lincoln was forced to use the destruction of war to do it, which weighed heavily on his heart. What he wanted was for all individuals to have equal dignity of prerogative.
So this, for me, is a day to reflect on emptiness and compassion, freedom and justice, union and choice.
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5 Ways to Engage Your Kids in Art and History

5 Ways to Engage Your Kids in Art and History

By Traci L. Slatton

girl sitting in an art museumWe (parents) want them (kids who know everything about instant messaging and the latest celebrity rehab, but who run screaming from museums and art books) to grow up knowing about more than Wii and the Xbox. We aspire for them to become literate, cultured people who can say something meaningful about Michelangelo’s Pieta and Degas’ dancers.

My husband is a classical figurative sculptor, and I have a passion for Renaissance art that led me to write a historical novel set in Renaissance Florence. So we have been determined to instill some love of art in our four children, despite their resistance. Here are some of our strategies.

  1. Make a game out of a museum trip. Go to the gift shop first, and let each child select four or five postcards. Then hunt through the museum to find all the paintings or sculptures shown on the cards. The first to find all of his objets d’art wins. But they all get treats at the end.
  2. Turn holiday meals into mini art salons. This works better in the winter, when we’re indoors. At summer cookouts, there’s too much else that’s intriguing. Not even the appearance of Leonardo da Vinci himself, resurrected and in the flesh, would engage a kid when cheeseburgers sizzle on the grill and sprinklers splutter on the lawn. But at Thanksgiving, for example, each person has to bring a poem, or a picture or printout of a painting or sculpture to the table. Before I serve the first course, we each read our poem or show the picture and talk about why we chose it. My kids like the attention, and they like being the teacher for the moment.
  3. Have a family culture night each week, and let each child in turn lead the weekly discussion. Assign a topic, such as Impressionist Painters or Robert Frost’s poetry. Older children can choose their topic, perhaps arising from a homework assignment. This also capitalizes on kids’ innate love of attention and being the leader. Thursday night is usually our family dinner night, and while the older three of the four girls in our blended family spend a lot of time discussing mascara and hot guys, they also try to find something interesting to say about Charles Dickens or Gustave Courbet.
  4. Give them a get-out-of-jail-free card. If the girls spontaneously engage in a cultural activity, like perusing an art book that’s not assigned at school, or watching a television documentary about World War II or the life of Chagall, they may get a free “pass.” My kids do the boneheaded things all kids do, and they love this, especially when they haven’t cleaned their room in two months and are growing non-CDC-approved life forms in old pizza boxes (not the kind of culture we advocate). Note: this is best used for minor mischief. When my daughter got drunk at age 16, not even a four-hour discourse on Cimabue and Giotto could have gotten her off the hook. Responsible behavior means responsible behavior.
  5. Find an artist nearby and take your kids on a studio visit. Many artists enjoy having visitors to witness their process, and seeing a live person passionately engaged in artistic endeavor is the sneakiest way to spark a young mind. A painter in love with his art, or a musician in love with his instrument, is a thrilling inspiration. It’s best if the artist is at least semi-successful so the kids see the business acumen that goes along with a thriving career in the arts. After all, they will have to earn a living one day.

It’s not a perfect system, built as it is mostly on attention-based bribery and cajolery. And truly, the best way to teach kids to seek high culture, as with any other value, is for parents to embrace it themselves. That’s a tall order when we’re beset with carpooling to soccer games, overseeing homework, cooking, housecleaning, jobs, and the need to sleep a few hours each night. But with love, tolerance, and a sense of humor, we can encourage our kids to appreciate beautiful art.

FROM: new jersey family, february 2010.

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There’s something wonderful about that moment of enchantment that shocks us out of our normal ways of seeing things and lands us in a fresh way of looking. Travel to a new city, a great poem or painting, a moment of communion during prayer or meditation, even a child’s shout of laughter can be the catalyst. It’s not necessarily a higher way of perceiving, it’s usually a lateral jump. But it gives a rebirth into the moment, an unexpected and palpable sense of the mysterious now.

I live with a classical figurative sculptor whose mind processes the world so differently than mine that those little jolts occur regularly, in our communication. If what passes between us can rightly be called communication. Because I think in words and paragraphs, in flashes of energy and leaps of feeling and intuition. Sabin thinks in concrete visual images, in form and color and volume. Sometimes I think he has to translate his thoughts into a language that I can understand, and I still have to reverse-engineer his words into my own dialect, to finally grasp what he’s trying to convey.

Which kind of works out between us, because he’s normally a quiet-spoken man of few words, and I can fill the space between us with my own loquacity. And I don’t even mind when his eyes glaze over because I figure he’s going to the happy place in his mind–best I can figure, that’s the Medici tombs in the church of San Lorenzo in Florence, with Michelangelo’s breathtaking funereal monuments.

But sometimes Sabin gets a word in edgewise, and there it is, that little frisson, the world cracking to reveal itself anew. The other day he said, “The babysitter’s head is a near perfect sphere. Do you think she would model for me?”

Now, I know he’s planning to do a set of twice-life-sized heads, male and female, with an eye to the hotel and grand lobby market, when he finishes the Apollo (see the pix above). Those heads would look beautiful outdoors in gardens and near pools, also. It’s a good idea because he’s not just thinking about art but also about selling art, and, you know, artists have to eat and pay their kids’ school tuition, too.

But I had never noticed that our babysitter had an especially round head. I had seen her to be lovely, and better still from my point of view, kind to our mischievous 4 year old daughter. So I went back to look at her again, next time she was working for us. Sure enough, part of what makes her so pretty is that elegantly-shaped head.

“Sabin says your head is beautifully round,” I told her. “Would you be interested in modeling for him?”

“I’ve always been self-conscious about my head being so round,” she confessed. “I’d be honored! I can’t believe he would ask me.”

“Don’t be honored,” I warned. “As a boss, working on his sculpture, Sabin makes Attila the Hun look like a sweetie pie.” I know this because he’s working on a bust of me. I’ve experienced his exacting demands for myself.

“The forms on your face are defined and highly symmetrical,” he told me, when we started the project. It’s probably the only compliment he’s ever given me, and boy oh boy, does high symmetry make a woman’s heart palpitate. But I did check myself out in the mirror, when he grudgingly gave me permission to pee. I’m not sure I saw what he did. All I could think was that I’d better give botox a try.

But it was a new way of seeing even myself, and that’s something I seek out, too. I wanted to discuss modes of perception when I sat back down to continue modeling. Though, do you believe, he doesn’t like me to talk while he’s sculpting me? Claims it’s distracting. We put the bust on hold until I’ve finished what I have to say. It may be a few decades.

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The Art of Asking Questions

The Art of Asking Questions

There’s a scene in the first HOME ALONE, a truly classic movie, where a child of about 5 years climbs into a van waiting to whisk a large family to the airport. The enterprising child besieges the driver with questions. He leans close into the driver and queries him relentlessly about all sorts of matters, a stunning barrage of interrogatory, verbal machine gun fire. The driver’s brain comes undone. He’s left rattled and nettled and hopelessly askew. It’s the first domino that falls in a trail of them, winding up with… a child left home alone to fend for himself during the holidays.

I think of this scene often (and isn’t that what makes a movie classic, the way particular scenes haunt you forever?). This scene comes to mind because I have a four-and-a-half-year old daughter who regularly enacts it. Daughter? Shall I call her the demon imp of questions, the patron saint of why, how, what, and how come?

As I write this, she sits next to me at the dining room table with a pad of paper. “What do we need from the store? Do we need sugar? How do I draw a ‘K’?” she asks. I surmise that she’s making a grocery list, something she’s watched me do a thousand times. “Can you show me how to draw a ‘K’?”

This is only the beginning. As long as she’s around me, and I don’t turn on the TV babysitter, she’s going to come up with questions. “Then what do we need, mama, after milk?”

“Eggs,” I tell her.

“How do you spell that? Do you like my ‘E’? Does ‘G’ have a kickstand like this? Do we need balloons? How do you spell ‘balloons’?”

It’s partly about observing and making sense of the world. The other day she launched herself like a missile into the bathtub and splashed around happily for a few minutes, making an aquarium of our bathroom. Then she turned serious. “Why does the water get higher when I get in? Why can’t I hear my hands when they clap underwater?”

So my hapless husband and I wracked our brains to explain the volumetrics of water to her.

Sometimes it’s about avoiding an unpleasant activity, like bedtime or picking up her crayons. Nothing will elicit a stream of questions like closing the cover of the last bedtime book. “How come the bear in that story has brown fur? Do all bears have brown fur? What about polar bears? Can you really fly all the way to the moon? How far away is the moon? Is the moon next door to the sun?” How long can she prolong the delicious moments of cuddling and conversation, before we flip off the light and close the door to her room?

And, naturally, the questions are about drawing my attention, or her father’s, or that of one of her three big sisters. This little sprite likes to engage with people. She enjoys the limelight. If she can draw us in with a question–she’s got us. She figured that out a long time ago. Not that it’s entirely self-serving. She can maximize the utility of what she’s doing, and suck in our attention while also… making sense of the world.

Most of the time I enjoy my little one’s questions. Sometimes they fry the gray matter rattling around in my cranium, sure. I get tired, I get exasperated, hey, I’m not the Buddha, and I don’t want to put together an explanation of why the sky is blue while I’m trying to make a dinner salad and, simultaneously, explain to my 14-year-old middle daughter why she can’t attend a football party where there will be 18-year-old men.

But often, in response to these questions, I experience the same piquant thrill that I do when I’m traveling. That is, I’m jolted out of my habitual way of seeing the world, and I look with new eyes, and fresh wonder, at the world around me. Isn’t the blue sky a kind of miracle, anyway?

My sweetie doesn’t do what adults sometimes do: disguise judgments as questions. This is the crucial difference, this matter of innocence. Her questions are really questions, not statements, even if they have an ulterior motive of getting me to pay attention to her or of getting her out of eating broccoli. She wants to know, and to understand. So her questions arise out of the innate art of our human core, the art of genuine curiosity.

On Beauty
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On Beauty

On Beauty

I have been reading Rumi.

I do this whenever I am heartsick, soulsick. Usually it’s for something I can’t identify, though there’s always some exterior thing like a convenient hook to hang it on: my dog bit my little one and had to be surrendered; my 14-year-old told me a great big whopper; my in-laws have rejected their own grand-daughter and disinherited my husband as a means to communicating their supreme dislike of me; my husband is cranky with exhaustion and overwork and a long string of fourteen hour days; the publishing industry is in a stupid place, and largely, in my view, because publishers publish the same damn crap rather than searching out interesting work, and then they wonder why people don’t want to buy it; our financial situation is fraught, as is our situation with our two former spouses…. There’s no end to people and matters that will serve as an excuse. Rumi says, “Everyone chooses a suffering that will change him or her to a well-baked loaf.”

But I think that is preferable to avoiding the suffering, and failing to rise. That happens, too.

So there is all this stuff amenable to being blamed for my anguish, not to mention that it is that time of the month. But is the body or its relationships or its contexts really the reason for this melancholy seeking without an end?

Yesterday this poem of Rumi’s manifest itself to me, in a moment of bibliomancy, or at least I like to think that the Divine was smiling wryly at all my flailing about, and granted me this mouthful of grace.

Coleman Barks calls it THE MOST ALIVE MOMENT:

“The most living moment comes when
those who love each other meet each
other’s eyes and in what flows
between them then. To see your face
in a crowd of others, or alone on a 
frightening street, I weep for that.
Our tears improve the earth. The
time you scolded me, your gratitude,
your laughing, always your qualities
increase the soul. Seeing you is a 
wine that does not muddle or numb.
We sit inside the cypress shadow
where amazement and clear thought
twine their slow growth into us.”

(THE SOUL OF RUMI, translations by Coleman Barks.)

I cried after I read it. I found excuses to cry all day. It’s something I rarely do. And then my husband showed me this photo on his iPhone of his Apollo’s outstretched arm. Even in process, it was beautiful: gesture and form, a supreme example of artistry. I cried some more, alone, in my bathroom, so no one knew I was being so silly. And I remembered why this man, this life, this set of choices that has led to this moment in all its bittersweet, empty fullness.

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In my next lifetime

In my next lifetime, when I come back, I will ski more and worry less.
I will begin every dinner with dessert, and it will be dark chocolate,
or something gooey
and coconut.
I will choose dresses for color and not for whether or not they make
me look slim. I am thinking yellow,
purple, and butterfly prints
in chintz.
I will start using sun-block when I am 12, the same age
when I will begin practicing
because it makes me feel so peaceful and good.

In my next lifetime, when I come back, I will choose
a comfortably upper-middle-class family to host my wandering
soul. I’ve seen that great wealth imposes anxiety
and demands of its own. Too little to work for
ruins people. So does poverty, my old scourge.
The lack of money–for graduate school, for good doctors,
for guitar lessons, for the occasional porterhouse steak and soul-ravishing
trip to Paris–
is one of the great evils that besets humanity.

In my next lifetime, and I hope the Earth isn’t ruined before
I make it back, I will play outside more, which can mean lying
on my back beneath an oak tree and reading something
like Dickens
or Yeats
or a cheesy romance novel. I will spend more time staring into the sky
and no time at all on a therapist’s couch.

I will say
more often and do the dishes only when they’re piled up to the ceiling.
I will turn off the TV but go to every sci-fi movie
that opens. I will choose more friends who understand
that I’m originally from
the planet Xetron
and that this beautiful blue and green orb
is just a way station on my peregrinations. They will laugh more with me
than at me and they will understand the value of
spontaneous dance.
I have only a few of those kind in this life.
I miss them all the time.

In my next lifetime, since
I’m not enlightened
and I will have to return to complete the balance
I will say “I love you” to the people I love:
on the hour, every hour. Even when I hate them.
And especially when they hate me.

In my next lifetime I will be
the luminous me
I always wanted to be now, and somehow fell short of.
It wasn’t for the absence of an open heart or effort.
Rather, I tried too hard, and let gravity weigh
me down. So in my next life, I will let my
open heart lift, and shine me to everyone I meet.

Traci L. Slatton