Archive for October, 2014

“Bless”, “Blessing”, “Blessed”, “Bles-sed”

©2014 By Bob Litton

“It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honour, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly there was some deep meaning in it most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. (My emphasis.)

“When thus perplexed—and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive in order to take the eyes of Indians—I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat, and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.”
–from the “Introductory” chapter to The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

One of these days, I am going to write an essay about knowing and the various ways we become aware of, and maybe even knowledgeable about, anything: the philosophers call the study of that capability, epistemology. But not today. Today I am approaching only one — albeit the most fascinating one — of the modes of knowing: the supersensible, intuitive, gut, or mystical way of knowing. And I am addressing it only through an example, not as the subject itself.

One morning back in 1991, I was enjoying my morning exercise stroll along an arc of White Rock Lake on my way to the neighborhood coffee shop, a distance of half a mile. On the way to my destination, as I watched the sun’s rays dapple the cottonwood trees’ leaves, I suddenly became aware of a new bit of sureness within myself. I could not help uttering, “I feel that I have been blessed!”

Now, Bible Belt Christians might interpret that feeling and the statement that followed it as a sign that I had been saved, something like Charles Wesley’s “warming” of the heart; but I did not view it in that sense, for I had not a heavy enough sense of personal sin to feel the requirement of salvation of that sort. Also, I had been attending church quite regularly as well as AA meetings every day; so, when I considered the moment as a possible “conversion” experience, I challenged that as a bit over-the-top.  However, beyond such a simplistic explanation, I was faced with a conundrum: Why? In what way? By whom? Why now? For that matter, what does it mean to be blessed?

For the rest of that day and for weeks afterwards, I indulged in my most frequent vice: intellectualizing what I probably should not desecrate with analytical thought. But it was so much fun…even though ultimately frustrating, since no clear-cut determination was possible.

The main problem was that there are several meanings and uses of the word “bless” and its various verbal, nominative and adjectival forms. There is perhaps the most common one: one person blessing another (say, after a sneeze: gesundheit) or blessing a meal (saying a prayer over the food, supposedly to make it more nourishing or simply digestible). Then we have the dousing of someone’s head with water and providing them with a “Christian name” or to signify the person’s acceptance into a communion of like-minded souls. And we might as well include the light-weight expletive “Bless it!” (a gentler cousin to “Damn it!”). In its other forms, blessing can mean “unexpected gift” (as in “a blessing in disguise”), and bles-sed can serve as a spiritual synonym for “fortunate” (an alternative which Jesus reportedly used frequently in his “Sermon on the Mount”).

I had been aware for decades that I had been “blessed” in the sense that I was “gifted” with a few talents: but I already knew that; I did not need this sudden internal springing of a “new knowledge” that I was able to write and draw better than many others. So, perhaps you have some idea now of the quandary I was in; for, without knowing who or what had blessed me and toward what end, I could not imagine how to interpret my new knowledge or what to do about it…if, in fact, it was necessary to do anything.

Up to that date, I had had several mystical experiences and had read the writings and biographies of many Western mystics. Fortunately, among those writings — especially by St. John of the Cross; Meister Eckhart; Jan of Ruysbroeck; the anonymous author of Cloud of Unknowing; and Thomas Keating — I read of experiences that were reflective of my own experiences, and special terms that denoted them (“consolations”, “the ineffable”, etc.). I had been particularly impressed by St. John of the Cross’s vivid metaphors (although overall I consider him a turgid prose writer) and of his listing of the spiritual sins (pride, gluttony, envy): sins which are comparable to their mundane counterparts yet specifically related to religious practices. Therefore, I tried to view my mystical moments against a rational background, not to deny or ignore them but to avoid interpreting “every bird that flies over as an omen”. Still, I could not refrain from wondering what some of my experiences meant, particularly when they seemed to me to be unnecessary, as was (to me) this strange feeling of being blessed.

In due course, I became less concerned about how I should interpret my experience or to respond to it, since that clearly was indeterminable, and more concerned with the term “bless” itself and its ambiguities. As a writer and a wannabe logician, I frequently employ my imaginary surgeon’s scalpel to examine the denotations and connotations of words. Also, when I come across or recall a word that seems extraordinarily exact or just plain pretty, I coddle it by way of frequent use. But in this instance no satisfactory interpretation occurred to me.

I left the whole matter in abeyance for these many years, only occasionally allowing it to float to the surface of my consciousness…unattended to…until the day before yesterday. I thought then that it might make a good topic for a blog post; also, it might be easier to investigate, since now I have access to all the tools in my computer and on the Internet, most of which were lacking fifteen years ago. So, here I have been writing my odd experience up for much of the morning. And while I was looking through a few online dictionaries for the various definitions of “bless”, “blessing”, “blessed” and “bles-sed”, I was slightly startled to see the following: “having a sacred nature: connected with God” (Merriam-Webster).

My readers might shake their heads and mutter, “Nothing new or obscure about that definition…been around a long, long time!”

I agree. However, I believe that this time I was moved to interpret it personally. After gazing a few moments at the definition, I said to myself, “I’ll go with that…and appreciate it.”

Finis

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Reflections On A Jack-o’-Lantern

© 1980, 2014 By Bob Litton

Even the most sophisticated civilization needs its rituals, and what best justifies a ritual is how thoroughly it manages to reforge the links in the “Great Chain of Being”—vegetable, animal, human and spirit.

Because Halloween achieves such integration so preeminently, it has remained one of our popular festivals, notwithstanding its dangers. Our spirits can be as unholy and mischievous as the law and our own good sense will allow. We let our Dionysian hair down—become good-naturedly silly.

The animal kingdom’s contributions to this celebration are of course the black cat and the bat. But the one is too common and the other too uncommon to be truly representative. It seems beyond question that the plant kingdom provides the symbol that is inseparable from Halloween: the pumpkin. As a natural lantern, with its decoratively carved features resembling at once both a foolish human and a grinning ghoul, the pumpkin in a single piece manifests the vegetable-human-spirit linkage.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of the pumpkin-turned-jack-o’-lantern is that such a transformation can happen at all. Is it not something of a miracle that a squat, ungainly gourd can by a few triangular gashings from one’s knife, a complete gutting and an inserted candle be changed into a personality? We are tempted to fall into “pathetic fallacy” and assert our pumpkin wanted to become a jack-o’-lantern.

One can hardly wait for nightfall to kindle the candle’s wick.  And when dark has come, the flame, flickering shadow-maker, is as mysterious as any fire under a witch’s kettle. By the sprite-like aura with which it invests the pumpkin, the candle’s flame contributes to the spirit element in the ritual.

From its position in the window or on the porch, the jack-o’-lantern’s grinning face forms an oval of warm light in the frosty night. It beams a welcome to those knowing enough to comprehend more than its spooky aspect.

Finis

Interlude: Thank You, Everybody

From Bob Litton

This blog site, The Vanity Mirror, was inaugurated on January 3, 2013. Since then I have published 84 posts, attracted 105 “Followers” who are (or were) WordPress bloggers themselves, as well as five non-blogging friends who became “Followers” by signing on via their email addresses. Even more exciting has been luring readers (or at least “glancers”) from more than sixty flag-bearing entities around the world. (I write “flag-bearing entities” instead of “nations” on purpose because not all are independent nations; some are colonies, territories or city-states.) It is flattering to think of oneself as, if not a “world-renowned writer”, at least a “world-perused writer”.

I believe the time has come for me to issue a blanket “Thank You” to all my readers, even those who visited my site only once. (Was that really enough?) Now, I realize that it is customary among many in the blogging community to thank every individual reader/follower for clicking on the “Like” button and/or signing up as a “Follower”. However, I have chosen not to do that. In fact, as of right now, so late in my blogging career, I have declared myself a “Follower” of only one site, and even that was more from impulse than determined choice. (I won’t take up space explaining that today.)
Although I have clicked the “Like” button on several other bloggers’ posts over the past twenty-two months, I commented only four times, and most of those comments were responses to other folks’ comments on my posts.

Yes, part of the reason I have been slightly indifferent to other writers’ intentions is pure-dee laziness, albeit a justifiable laziness, I believe. Several bloggers boasted hundreds, even thousands, of “Followers”: How could anybody find time to keep up a correspondence with such a kite’s tail?

I have always checked out each new “Follower”, as WordPress recommends, to see if I could feel any connectedness with them. Did we have the same interests? Were they talented enough themselves to be judges of my writing? I discovered that I simply did not have any great interest in the blog sites of a few (culinary arts, auto-racing, military history, etc.) About a dozen others, mostly people in their twenties concentrated in Canada, were trying to push what I considered a pyramid scheme: I didn’t want any part of that. I was really surprised to find that several others just didn’t have anything on their blog to read! From reading many comments on other blog sites, I have concluded that much of this “Like”/”Follow” routine is just a way of getting other people to visit your blog and maybe even follow it out of a sense of quid pro quo: No, thanks! But, returning now to a more positive tone, I have noticed — especially recently — that some bloggers’ sites have been substantive and related to my interests; and I have clicked the “Like” button on those and even followed the one I mentioned above.

I certainly hope I haven’t ruffled any sincere readers’ feathers with this “thank you”. Rest assured, I did not intend to appear snooty, just honest.

Bob Litton

Great-grand-pappy Sevald O. Lund, the Painter (1852-1939)

One of Sevald O. Lund’s Western frontier paintings. Of the same generation as Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, Sevald liked to depict cowboys, Indians and loggers as much as he had the fishermen of his home country, Norway.

©2014 By Bob Litton

I have perhaps made it more than enough clear in previous posts that I aspired in my early youth to be an artist, particularly an author who illustrated his own writings. Well, it should also be obvious from those posts that I let my artistic talent wither, damn near atrophy. For several reasons, during my university years, I decided to concentrate on writing. From time to time, I returned to my paint brushes and clay, but mostly I just left them alone.

However, muscles notwithstanding, the blood within me still carried as much in the way of pigments, figuratively speaking, as it did ink. And one of these days, I am going to run away from this computer keyboard and employ those water colors I bought just over a month ago. It is difficult to elicit a true sense of color tones from words.

It could be all a delusion, but I believe I inherited my visual art talent from my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Sevald Olsson Lund, a Norwegian immigrant whose family settled in Wisconsin in 1865, when he was thirteen years old. He was my maternal grandmother’s father. Since he died almost three months before I was born, I obviously never had any opportunity to meet Great-grand-pappy; yet what my mother related and what I have read[1] about him written by Carlin Hibbard, a gallery manager and art consultant in Wisconsin, has almost convinced me that his “timorous nature” and “community artist” genes have descended into my nature. I have always abhorred confrontations, and my work as a journalist was always devoted to “community newspapers” and a radio station. Also similar to Sevald’s nature was the natural, simple emphasis in my few artworks and my inclination to produce them primarily for my own enjoyment and that of acquaintances. And, finally, I never anticipated — and therefore probably never deserved — making much money from them: my ancestor was more of a self-promoter than I (he had to be to make a living), but not much more. He had to earn a good portion of his livelihood from farming (for a while) and painting houses and coaches.

Ms. Hibbard sums up her evaluation of Sevald Lund as artist this way:
“Lund painted for his own enjoyment, but also with an eye toward the desires and interests of those around him. His works varied according to their use and according to their prospective owners, be they businessmen, Norwegian relatives, or grandchildren. It is, therefore, not surprising that Lund is difficult to describe stylistically. His repetition of motifs and the flat schematic manner in which he painted some of his large early works…gave them something of the primitive flavor of work by artists who had developed their own personal techniques and ways of solving pictorial problems. However, Lund cannot be classified as a truly naive painter because he, at the same time, showed an acquaintance with such academic techniques as modelling…, perspective…, balance in composition…, coordinated color, and the ability to portray atmospheric light effects. Furthermore, if one were to look only at his Norwegian farm paintings one would probably classify him as a folk artist nostalgically depicting scenes from his past. These pieces, painted primarily for friends and relatives, were executed with the sort of straightforward simplicity and sincerity that is typical of folk art while lacking its flat and linear quality.”[2]

Although Sevald did not study art in a school, he did work for several years as assistant to German immigrant Jacob Miller, who had studied at, and been credentialed by, the Royal Academy in Munich. Hibbard, in her essay, tried to link Lund to other 19th century artists of note, comparing him stylistically and/or thematically to Herbjørn Gausta (1854-1924) for his “quiet realism” and to Edward Hicks (1780-1849), whose “painting procedures were a mixture of the primitive artist’s personally achieved methods and knowledge he had gained in the handling of pictorial space and depiction of figures from his work as a sign painter. Like Lund he cannot be really classified as a pure primitive or as an academic painter….What they have in common is being artists of the people, satisfied with serving their immediate community.”[3]

Although Sevald painted at least one religious painting, for a Lutheran church, most of his paintings were landscapes (especially of farms and logging camps), marine scenes (wharves, fishing boats, and ships at sea), bucolic scenes (cows and sheep), still lifes, and cowboys and Indians. Readers can get a good idea of the scope and quality of his works at this URL site:
http://picasaweb.google.com/slund5/SevaldOLund#

There are also a couple of home movies accessible on YouTube showing Sevald and his immediate family about to depart on an excursion; but what they are celebrating, I have no idea. The main reason I mention it here, since I doubt that many readers will be interested in visiting those films, is that they were filmed by one of my great-aunts, Aunt Kristine (“Kit”), who also had some artistic talent, which she developed enough to coach me. Another of my grandmother’s sisters, Aunt Jo, was a commercial artist who did fashion drawings for a newspaper and illustrated at least one youth novel (which I no longer possess).

Ms. Hibbard notes that Sevald gave many of his paintings to relatives, especially to his grandchildren, of whom my mother was one. Mother gave me the one she had: a water-color scene of some sheep resting in the shade of a beech tree; and my great-aunt Jo gave me a water-color of a steam ship…with masts (?) docked at a wharf. My sister-in-law has one of his seascape-with-boats water-colors.

I have instructed my heir and power-of-attorney friend to send my Lund pictures to the Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, after I am released from this “vale of sorrows”. That museum already has a large permanent collection of Sevald’s artworks. Knowing that many of his paintings are scattered now throughout the United States, particularly in California and Texas, they have requested that any present owners donate theirs to the Chippewa Museum.  They also had a special retrospective of his paintings and carvings during the period June 16, 1990 through January 6, 1991. Wish I could have gone to view it.

* * * * * *

[1] Carlin Hibbard, “S. O. Lund, A Community Artist from Norway”, in Marion Nelson, ed., Material Culture and People’s Art among the Norwegians in America, (Northfield, Minn., Norwegian-American Historical Assn.: 1994), pp. 176-198.

[2] Ibid. p. 193.

[3] Ibid., pp. 194-5.

S. O. Lund

Finis

.

Which One Are You?

Young-Old Woman

©2014 By Bob Litton

I am going to have to admit something to you folks: I have no notion…yet…what I am going to say in this post. Sometime last evening, the theme of “how does what we see determine or reveal our personalities and values?” invaded my noggin. I did not know the answer then and I do not know it now, but I was willing to think and write on the wing. Let us see where that tactic leads us.

I suppose most of my readers have had enough life experience to recognize the above optical illusion of a woman, the age (old or young) of whom the viewer is asked by some psychologist to declare. It was reportedly created and published in 1915 by cartoonist W.E. Hill, so you can see that the attire is not the throwback you might have imagined it to be. The majority of us, I believe, see only a young woman first and then have to focus and concentrate to perceive the old woman; or vice versa. I have seen it so many times by now that I can isolate either quite quickly.

I do not know whether Hill was trying to develop a serious psychoanalyzing tool or simply drawing an ambiguous image for people to have fun with. I like to consider it as serving both purposes. As for a psychological tool, it is comparable to the old bromide about the glass of water being half full or half empty: either interpretation supposedly reveals a characteristic within the viewer’s personality; he/she is either an optimist or a pessimist. Of course, a complication in this test might arise if the viewer possesses a quirky fondness for old women, or just lost his/her home in a flood; then what is less appreciated by most people would be desirable to this viewer. Another goal of the psychologists might simply be to test people’s various abilities to compare and distinguish.

I have discussed perception in the arts in previous posts: “Chaos of Taste…” (May 1, 2013); “McGuffey…” (Nov. 23, 2013), and “O Beauty…” (September 27, 2014). I have also held many conversations with an artist friend concerning our different modes of depicting a subject in our productions: I emphasize volumes; he emphasizes lines. Of course, neither of us is absolute in these approaches; it is just that the first quality we look for in any other artist’s work is one of those two. Recall that in my essay on “McGuffey…”, I praised the 19th century illustration of a cat for its furry detail created by a multitude of lines; and in my essay “Bob’s Wee Art Gallery, Part I” (June 22, 2014) I cited cowboy artist Andy Adams as an influence in teaching me the value of texture through lines. Nonetheless, I hold up as my model of supreme artist N. C. Wyeth, whose precision modeling made his illustrations for several young people’s literary classics visually palpable.

But my friend is almost religious in his devotion to the “line” artists, that is, those who through their thick and thin lines connect this portion of a work with that portion, so you can understand his concentration on comic book art and the graphic novel, particularly those by Jeff Smith. He much appreciates Walt Kelly, the late creator of “Pogo”, for his “flow, grace, rhythm and simplification.” Among the fine arts figures, he favors Paul Klee and Leopoldo Santos-y-Mendez for their “strong geometry” and Edgar Degas and Norman Rockwell for their “draftsmanship”. (I am with him on Degas and Rockwell.) We do not argue about our contrasting values, although I believe we each feel a slight urge to convert the other. *(See note below.)

So, where do these diverging lanes originate and where do they lead in our psyches? I cannot speak fully for my friend, although I can generalize from observation and describe him as an optimist. His viewpoint has been heavily affected by Zen Buddhism, so he sees nothing in the external world as really touching him either harmfully or helpfully; everything is simply there. Also, excepting his personal preferences, he believes almost totally in the principle that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and that anything can be classified as an art object to somebody.

As for me, I definitely am a pessimistic depressive. After nearly seventy-five years, I feel that I have seen more than I need to see in this world — from trolley street-cars to the landing on the Moon, from the party-line phone system to the proliferation of cell phones, from tent revivals to the emergence of ISIS. Stop the world! I want to get off! And yet, I have read recently that pessimists both live longer and are calmer in crises than other people: the movie Melancholia, wherein the people of Earth are fatally faced with an oncoming planet, has as its primary theme the second of those attributes. I sure hope the first attribute is untrue. As though I haven’t already seen enough of a changing reality, I now feel convinced that I will live long enough to see the end of the world. Consequently, I reach back mentally and artistically to my childhood, to grasp the solid elements that made it cheerful. I crave the bold, shadowed forms in N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations. I search and search through my bag of childhood memories, like a pig after truffles.

But this pig has already eaten all the truffles.

Finis

*After I had first posted the above, my friend sent me an email in which he asked me to add a few more artists to his favorites list. I thought that inserting them within the body of the essay would render it too crowded, so I am appending his email message here:

When you’re listing Degas and Norman Rockwell, put Toulouse-Lautrec in between them.

“And you can add Rockwell Kent on the graphic arts side next to Leopoldo Mendez.

“Regarding Mendez, he had a ‘late’ or ‘mature’ (or whatever) style where he worked the whole surface of the wood block with flowing textures. It was a big influence on me when I was studying printmaking in college. Here’s a good example:

Final Finis

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