Friday, December 31, 2021

THAT JIGSAW...

...done!

With a lot of help from my friends! We worked first from the red/orange images, then I actually managed to complete the frame. Then finished the inside in time for the New Year. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

LESLIE

Dear Harry,

Our daughter-in-law Diane's father died last night. That's Matthew's wife, the mother of three of your great-grandchildren. We have been in touch with her, of course, and her father's death was anticipated after a difficult stay in the hospital and a choice to return home without much hope of surviving for many days. Leslie and Helena lived in the south of France, near St. Tropez, so travel has been hard for their daughter these past two years, since Covid struck. Now that travel restrictions have been re-imposed with a new spike in infections, she is marooned there, left to take charge of everything, including her severely ailing mother, without the presence and support of her family. A dire predicament.

Because of the geographical distance between California and the south of France, we had met Leslie only a handful of times--the first at Matthew and Diane's wedding, some twenty-five years ago. The memories we have are fond ones. Who knew what other emotions lurked below the surface of his life, but we knew him as a man filled with the joy of life and infectious with his ebullience. He was possessed of a sharp wit, a fine intelligence, and blessed with a somewhat mischievous sense of fun. And he had lived a long and a full life. He will be missed, especially by a daughter who was remarkable in her devotion to both her parents, and who is now left alone to mourn his passing. I wish I could have been as good a son to you and Peggy, and that I had been there to hold your hand when your time came.

We say: rest in peace, but in truth we are unable to envision how that peace might look. At the very least, we know this passage is an end to whatever suffering we may have experienced in our human lives, and in that knowledge is a kind of blessing, I suppose. For those left behind, though, there is the profound and lasting experience of grief. I can do little but send thoughts of love and support to Diane as she begins this process. 

May you too, and Peggy, both, who died so long ago, rest in peace.

With love, your son, Peter

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

JIG-SAW

This is proving to be a devilishly hard jig-saw puzzle. If you'r an occasional puzzler, as am I, you'll know that the usual way to start is with the edges. Find the straight edges, fit them all together and you'll have a frame to work from, to work toward the middle parts. But in this puzzle, all those straight edge pieces have the same double line running through the middle...



... most confusing! I've discovered the best way to start is to take a couple of the larger colorful images and work on them...


Still, a lot of damn pieces to contend with. 1,000 of them, it says on the box. See you in 2022! (If then...)







Friday, December 24, 2021

WALKING...

It's Christmas Eve, even in Southern California. I love being able to accompany those British bloggers and wonderful photographers as they take me back to the countryside of my young days. Such nostalgia, especially at this time of year! In revenge, I invite you to join me on my cliff walk in Laguna Beach. My pictures are just iPhone snaps, but there you go...

We have palms, plenty of those...


Here's a view back over Main Beach, a bird of paradise in the foreground... Unfortunately the weather is, um... English. Try to imagine our usual ridiculously blue skies, bright sunshine...


See what I mean about the clouds?


We have rocky coves and breaking waves...




... and more palm trees


We have prickly cactus, of course. 


... and knotty palm trunks...


...and wind-blasted trees. That's my wife, Ellie, walking up ahead...


Our seagulls are pretty much the same as everywhere in the world, except that they normally have better weather. This one surveying his--or her--domain...


Someone thought to improve the looks of this agave plant with decorative Christmas tree balls...


... and added a note of greeting down below...


These tree trunks would be the envy of any sculptor, I believe...


... as would this other wind-blasted tree...


Waves, um... break eternally on the sandy shore...


Well, it's not England, is it? But still beautiful. And the weather is usually a lot better--but we enjoy the clouds and, especially, the rain, when it blesses us as it did finally today. And when we arrive home for breakfast after our walk we get to enjoy oranges from our tree...


HAPPY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE! 






Thursday, December 23, 2021

MIND/NO MIND

Sometimes, in meditation, when I want to re-mind myself how mind might look, I imagine myself in a car, driving through some vast desert landscape...

I think of the brain as the engine of the vehicle, working away as it pulls us all along through this vast desert landscape...

I think of the vehicle itself as the body...

and I think of mind as everything up ahead and everything behind, everything to the left, as far as the eye can see, and everything to the right; of the great, supporting earth below and the boundless sky above...

and then... everything beyond the horizon up ahead and beyond the horizon stretching out behind; everything beyond the horizons, left and right; and everything beyond the boundless sky...

I think of mind... no, I experience mind as clear, open, limitless space, powerful beyond imagination...

... and then, when I have it all in mind, I let go. 

No mind.

If you never tried it, you might find this an instructive, mind-opening experience. Start by imagining yourself in a car, traveling though a vast desert landscape...

think of the brain as the engine of the vehicle, pulling you along...

think of the whole vehicle as the body...

and think of mind as everything ahead and everything behind, everything to your left as far as the eye can see and everything to your right; of the great, supporting earth below and the boundless sky above...

and then, imagine an unimaginable expansion, including everything beyond the horizon up ahead and the horizon stretching out behind; everything beyond the horizons, left and right, and everything beyond the boundless sky...

and think of mind... no, experience the mind... as pure, open, limitless space, unimaginably powerful, unimaginably great...

... and then, when you have it all in mind, let go. 

No mind.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

MUSTARD

Dear Harry,

It's a good day to celebrate your skill, your artistry. I wish I knew the whereabouts of that early picture of you in your black cassock and white dog collar in your wood shop in Newcastle, bent over your treadle saw, hands guiding the wood past the blade as you concentrated on the making of some object--perhaps a toy for your children as you used to do every year at this time for Christmas gifts. 

Do you remember this little mustard pot and spoon?


I came across it this morning in the pantry in our kitchen. No mustard in it--we'd need the bright yellow Coleman's powder used to stir into that hot English mustard, a condiment that we buy these days, sadly, ready-mixed. But it's still a beautifully made little object and it reminds me of your love of wood and your skill in working with it as the medium for the craft you practiced as a hobby throughout your life. 

Those Christmas gifts! How eagerly we awaited them, my sister and I. How we wondered what could be taking shape behind the forbidden door of your workshop. How anxiously we waited, after stocking time on Christmas morning, for the hours to pass before present-opening time, after tea, late afternoon--because Christmas Day was a busy one for you in church, with Holy Communion, Parish Mass and Mattins all before Christmas dinner in the middle of the day. And after dinner there was your nap time--there was no interrupting that ritual--and tea with fruit cake in its delicious coat of marzipan and hard white icing.

Only then we were allowed to open our big presents, always hand-made by you. When I was quite little there was the big red railway engine--big enough for me to sit astride and propel along with my feet on either side. During the war there was the aerodrome complete with hangars, wind socks, runways, and model Spitfires. For my sister there was the big, walk-in dolls' house with every item of furniture carefully made--the bed, the chairs, the table and the (working!) chest of drawers; and, when she was a little older, the kidney-shaped dressing table scaled perfectly to her size. 

It was later, in retirement I believe, that you learned to turn out beautiful objects on the lathe--objects like the mustard pot I happened on this morning, bowls and candlesticks, little side plates, pepper- and salt-mills... all things that could be loved, and touched, and used around the house. What a gift that was, Harry, and what a gift to be able to give these things away as gifts that others still treasure in their lives. It's a good time now, around Christmas, to celebrate that gift in memory, your skillful hands, your vision, and the patience it took to bring such lovely things into the world.

I, a useless klutz with everything except, perhaps, words, am humbled when I look at this humble little mustard pot and recall the man who made it.

With love at Christmas time, your son,

Peter


Saturday, December 18, 2021

COVID

 Oh, Harry! Your younger grandson has "tested positive"--as we say these days for someone who has contracted one of the strains of the dreaded Covid-19. He sounded dreadful for a couple of days when I spoke to him on the telephone; but I'm happy to say that, when I called early this morning, his voice sounded much stronger. Send him your good thoughts and an (at least virtual!) laying-on of hands--your favorite healing practice. I wish he were not so far away... With love, your own son, Peter

Friday, December 17, 2021

BURDENED

The word came to me with sudden and rather unwelcome clarity after two sleepless hours this morning early.

Burdened.

I'm feeling burdened. Weighed down by... everything.

It's a feeling I have been resisting because it's uncomfortably close to self-pity, which is something is deplore in others and despise in myself.  But this is a little different from self-pity. How can I describe it? I tried to define it the other day when I wrote about alienation, the sense of not belonging, of being unmoored, adrift. But I think now that "burdened" describes it better. It's a sense of heaviness, of being deprived of both the motivation and the ability to move.

I feel burdened by possessions, by everything that, with Ellie, I have gathered around me over the years. The art on the walls, the books, the furniture. It all weighs heavy. Even the house, the garden... There's a place in my mind where I'd like to be rid of all of it. Not that I want to be a homeless hermit, obviously; no, it's the responsibility of owning all of it that feels like such a weight. 

I feel burdened by the daily routine, the chores, taking Jake out for his morning walk, his evening walk, helping in the kitchen with the chopping and dicing, the dishes after meals. It's all so familiar, so rote, so, well, necessary. I'll admit it, there's some rather unworthy part of me that just wants to have all those things taken care of for me, some part that wants to be relieved of the responsibility and just feel, well... unburdened. 

I feel burdened by my body, burdened by its familiar aches and pains, by a leg that hasn't worked quite right since my hip surgery, by the superfluous five pounds that I seem unable to lose. I feel burdened by the body's faintly ridiculous wants and needs. I feel burdened by its age.

I feel burdened by the constant flood of news, events in the world that I know to be beyond my control, by the rank stupidity of some and the greed, ingenuousness and mendacity of others. I feel burdened by the rightward social and political lunge in this country and throughout the world that is so far from my own vision of compassion, mutual concern and care, a common humanity. I feel burdened by the conviction that the human species is bent on its own extinction. 

I feel burdened, too, by the feeling of being burdened. 

I struggle with these feelings. I try to resist them with the exercise of intellect, the power of reason. The wiser path, I think, is to allow myself to feel them to their fullest and work through them. The simple act of writing them down like this is its own form of healing, a means of dis-burdening, shedding some of the weight. And meditation helps. I step back, in meditation, acknowledge the feeling, and see it all from a different, more distant perspective, losing some of the attachment that takes pain and turns it into suffering. 

So there it is. The burden. There's an old spiritual hovering somewhere at the back of my mind, the one that so well gives voice to the deep longing to "lay that burden down." I take comfort in knowing that I'm not alone.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

I WOKE THINKING...

 ... of one little heart that pumps away, not quite endlessly, in one little chest of one little man in one little room in one little house on one little street on one little hill in one little city in one little state in one little country on one little planet in one little solar system in one little galaxy in one great universe. Phew!

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

PREFACE

I've been working on the final version of the manuscript for the book, "Dear Harry" in preparation for publication. I decided to add this preface....


PREFACE


This is the book I have been trying to write for my whole life. I have attempted it several times before. It’s there, in a nutshell, in “Aspley Guise”, the first book of poems I published more than 50 years ago. It’s there in a “novel” I wrote and titled simply “M”—and never published. It’s there in a memoir I called “Sticks & Stones.” It’s there, in part, in a memoir I did publish, “While I Am Not Afraid.”

But every one of these efforts left me feeling that much of what I’d wanted to say was left unsaid. They felt too personal, somehow, to be shared. I was always looking for a way to say these things, and never found it to my satisfaction until I stumbled into the idea of writing it all in the form of “letters to my father.” The medium allowed me to be as intimate as I wanted to be, but with my father serving as a kind of buffer between writer and reader.

I started out with the idea that I wanted to know my father, who had always seemed to be beyond my reach—ironically until after he was dead. But it was not long before I came to understand that what I also wanted was for him to know me.

“Dear Harry” exists as a book because I think I share this longing with almost everyone who ever had a father. I have worked for many years with men and know that many of them, countless really, have suffered in their lives because of absent fathers, fathers addicted to drink, or work, or women, fathers who died young, fathers unable or unwilling to show the love they might have felt. Even those well-intentioned fathers who simply seemed distant or remote to children who needed nothing more than a word of approval or a hug.

I say “men” because I have worked most intimately with them. But I believe it is no different for women with their fathers. And I do believe that there’s a cultural shift taking place that suggests that men are changing. They are becoming more easily attuned to their own feelings and therefore better fathers, more able to deal with the intimacy that good fatherhood requires.

My hope is that “Dear Harry” will be more than a memoir, more than a matter of one man’s experience, one man’s search; that it will invite fathers and children both to search more deeply in their hearts and become still better fathers to their children and still better children to their fathers. 

Which would make, perhaps, for a better world at a time when that better world is sorely needed by us all.

                                                                                  --- Peter Clothier

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

CRICKET

Well, Harry, I read the strangest thing today. You'll find this hard to believe. The national sport of your native land could be threatened by climate change! More frequent rainstorms mean less days when cricket can be played--not an unusual occurrence in England even in my youth, of course, but apparently the situation is measurably worse today. England without cricket! Can you imagine? I never played the game myself, not even at school. I think I've written to you before about the trouble I had tracking a ball as it moves through space. Couldn't hit it, couldn't catch it, couldn't kick it...! A total duffer. Ah well, no one is asking me to play cricket these days, in Los Angeles. But I thought you'd be interested. Rest well, Peter 

Friday, December 10, 2021

BLOGLIST

What you see to the right are blogs that catch my eye as I start wandering around the blogosphere again. Some are old friends, some valued sources of wisdom, mostly Buddhist. Some I stumble into and like their images or quirkiness. Some I like because they take me back to the English countryside where I lived in my formative years. Some appeal to me because I love good writing. Some because I love good art. They won't all stay on the list, perhaps. But some will. I hope you'll click on some and enjoy...

Thursday, December 9, 2021

GOODWILL

Dear Harry,

I have told you before about metta, the practice with which I have learned to started my daily meditation. It involves sending out thoughts of goodwill and compassion, first to myself, then to those close to me, and then, in ever expanding circles to those I like, those I hardly know, and those I don't know at all. It includes, too, those that I dislike. Which is the hard part. 

I was reminded of just how hard it can be this morning when I sat and tried to get past my anger and despair at the willful ignorance, stupidity, or yes just plain evil that seems to affect many of my fellow citizens these days. I was listening, yesterday, to still more reports about those millions of Americans who put their political adulation of one misguided, would-be autocratic former leader over their own interests, risking their health and even death in preference to listening to the voice of science, medicine, reason. Refusing to take sensible and proven life-saving precautions (vaccination, masks) in the face of this still-uncontrolled and deadly epidemic, they put not only their own health and lives at risk, but those of their families, their neighbors, and the national community at large. 

Worse, in my view, are the wicked ones--the ones who knowingly promulgate the half-truths and outright lies that promote this lunacy. There is, first and foremost, the man at the top of this toxic food chain, the man who formerly occupied the most powerful office in the world. Then come those who support him in his outrageous mendacity and, perhaps worst, the men and women of the media who make it their business to serve him as his propaganda machine. 

So when I sit and try to send out thoughts of goodwill and compassion to these people, I run headlong into the power of my judgment. This army of Americans who reject the factual knowledge of science and medicine are either stupid, I tell myself, or evil. How, then, to wish them well?  Quite honestly, Harry, it's a struggle. I try reminding myself that I am not the all-knowing one, that there are others who hold different views than mine. But if those views are so clearly--it seems to me!--delusional, how to be sympathetic to them.

Of course, when I send out that first, most basic wish--"May they find true happiness in their lives--it would seem to presuppose the surrender of their delusions. True happiness, from the Buddhist perspective as I've learned it, can't co-exist with animosity and lies. To wish these people well is not to share their misconceptions, nor to approve them. It's to wish for freedom from them. The world would be a better place were all of us--"those people" included--were to find true happiness. Once I get to this place in my mind I find that I can move ahead.

So there we are, Harry. Let's keep sending out those thoughts of goodwill. For all we're worth.

With love, Peter


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

SACRED LIFEBOATS


Dear Harry,

I'm happy to be opening the door to reconnection with fellow bloggers after a long absence. You never knew about blogs and bloggers and the blogosphere, of course, because you died before the Internet was much more than a gleam in the eye of those who could predict the future. But it's a marvelous invention, allowing a writer like myself to connect with anyone, anywhere in the world. Just imagine!

I realize I have missed the virtual companionship that I managed to build with my earlier blogs. I have a friend who created this idea of "sacred lifeboats"--micro-communities that can provide refuge from the craziness of the contemporary world. Think of them, from your own long experience as an English country village priest, as little congregations. I have a few of them--a group of artists that meets monthly, now finally again in person at our house; a meditation group that I host weekly on Zoom and another that has just started to meet in person again on Sundays in Laguna Beach; a group of older men from throughout the country who meet once a month on zoom to share thoughts and feelings about "conscious aging."

These are quite literally life-savers for me--which is why sacred lifeboats is a good name for them. Each one of them gives me a place to feel "at home." It is easy to get lost at sea these days. I woke this morning at 4 AM and could not get back to sleep, not because any particular thing was worrying me, but because I was (again!) feeling adrift, unmoored in the vastness of the... well, the universe. My psyche, my inner consciousness was formed in the context of those villages where we lived, where everyone knew everyone and everyone had a place where they were recognized and belonged.

There was safety in that. Oh, sure there were the quarrels and hurt feelings, but largely it was a cohesive community. There was a largely agreed-upon set of values, a course of events than ran smoothly from week to week and month to month and year to year. But that is pretty much lost in the world that I inhabit in my daily life today, and I have to say I miss it. 

So climb aboard the lifeboat with me, Harry! You'll enjoy the ride!

With love, Peter

Monday, December 6, 2021

BACK TO BLOGGER

I am back at the beginning with blogs and Blogger. It has been a long march. I started out in 2004 when the second Bush was re-elected. To my stupefaction. In my doubt and confusion I started wandering around the Internet and stumbled into Blogger, where I played around until I was invited to create a blog and give it a name. I called it, naturally, The Bush Diaries. It took the form of a daily, somewhat irreverent, hopefully funny, but never unpleasantly hostile letter to the man I thought should never have been voted into the Oval Office. 

How quaint that looks, in retrospect! How benign a president seems the man who took us into those disastrous wars (on terror, in Afghanistan, in Iraq) from whose repercussions we have still not fully extricated ourselves. If I thought that was bad, just look what followed! I wrote (almost) daily in The Bush Diaries for about five years--until I woke up one morning with the day's entry roiling in my head and realized with dismay that I was waking up every morning with Bush in bed with me. 

I hastened out of there. The Bush Diaries morphed very naturally, very comfortably into The Buddha Diaries (a healthy change to a more benevolent and beneficial B), and I continued my (near) daily habit of posting reflections in my blog for several more years. It was anything that came into my head or happened in my life on any given day. I liked it because it was not a private "journal"--I have never be attracted to the idea of "writing for myself": I do it to communicate with other people, no matter how few, to share my observations about art, movies, religion, politics, what moves me, or sometimes what leaves me cold.

So I have loved this curious habit, blogging, and will soon have practiced it for 20 years! Amazing. Some of my entries have been edited to appear later in book form: The Bush Diaries, Persist, Mind Work, and so on. Many, perhaps most, have simply wafted off into the remotest areas of the blogosphere, never to be seen or heard again. Which is okay. They did their job. They were read by a surprisingly large number of people, world-wide (I used to keep a map to show me where my readers were). There were responses, comments, objections, agreement, sometimes praise...

And now here I am, back to that proverbial square one again. The Buddha Diaries died a natural death. Old age, perhaps. I had also begun to feel uncomfortable, taking the Buddha's name in vain. I never really called myself a Buddhist, just an "aspiring Buddhist." I was certainly not preaching Buddhism, nor was I remotely entitled to. So there was that. 

And then I found myself writing these letters to my father. And writing them, I decided at one point, why not put them out into the world as (another!) blog. The title "Dear Harry: Letters to My Father" was an easy choice.  So, as you see, I started posting them. At last count there were nearly 100 entries in the blog, and there were many more that, for one reason or another, did not get posted. I found myself with enough of them, a collection with a kind of cohesive arc of time and topic, to make a book. That looks like it will happen, but in the meantime here I am with this blog, "Dear Harry," and it doesn't seem to want to stop.

I started out by saying that I'm back at the beginning. That's partly due to changes that have taken place with Blogger. I had to hire tech help to add the "subscribe" box at the top--something that was easy to accomplish with my own limited skills in "the old days." I have just spent hours trying to work out how to open and manage a blogroll--that used to be easy, too--and now that I've succeeded, I realize that I have forgotten or lost contact with all my former blog chums, the ones I had on my blogroll and who were kind enough to post me on theirs. 

I am a long-term a fan of The Dharma Bums--now The New Dharma Bums--so that's where I have started. (Hello, Robin!) But I know that I have lots of work to do to in order to catch up with my blogging, hoping to reconnect with old friends and make some new ones. I have made a commitment to launch myself into this new activity, but I'd also appreciate the help of readers/bloggers who share some of my interests and attitudes and would like to connect. So I'm sending this out as an invitation to bloggers and non-bloggers alike: I'd welcome your interest and suggestions and look forward to hearing from you--whether by comment on "Dear Harry", on Facebook, or by email at peterclothier at mac dot com.

Please pass this on (if it interests you) to others who you think might share your interest. Meantime, I hope to connect with you in the blogosphere.


Sunday, December 5, 2021

BLACK AND WHITE

I first learned that I was White when I was 43. Until then I just blithely took the color of my skin for granted and assumed, I suppose, that everyone else did the same. Oh, I knew that there were different races of the human species, with skins of different hues, but I was never much bothered about what that might mean. Harry and Peggy had visitors from different parts of the world--a Black bishop from Africa, a Japanese priest--and welcomed the young people my cousin Hugh brought in from his Oxford days, Monu, from India, Graeme from South Africa.... I myself had a friend at Cambridge, an Arab from the Lebanon. I even had a brief love affair with a beautiful Parsee woman I met when I lived in London. More love on my part, I fear, than on hers! But I never really thought of myself as a White man until 1979.

This thought came up yesterday as I wandered through an exhibition called "Black American Portraits" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I'll be talking about that in a minute. Meantime, though, let me explain how I discovered I was White. Well, am White still, actually. Curiously it was a man called Charles White who helped me understand. And he was a Black man. Sorry if this begins to sound confusing!

Charles White--I knew him as Charlie--happened to be teaching at Otis Art Institute when I arrived there as Dean, and soon as Acting Director when the Director who hired me left what appeared to be a sinking ship. It was a time of difficult transition and I was soon bearing the brunt of the challenge to keep the school afloat, and Charlie was the best friend I had. He was unfailingly at, and on my side. We used to go out for lunch together a couple of times a week and Charlie insisted on my joining him for his habitual three martinis. I got to know him as a friend long before I got to know his contribution as an artist. Which is a part of the story.

Charlie left Otis at the same time as myself, in 1979, when it merged with another art school in distant New York. He was already severely ill. I knew enough about his life's work by now to understand that it had received virtually none of the critical attention it deserved; and casting about for where my life would take me next I applied for a fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation for a study of his life and work. My application was approved--and this is when I began to discover I was White.

A trained academic, I started out along the usual research path--in the library, searching for magazine articles, critical reviews, books... and soon discovered this was pretty much a dead end. I turned to Charlie for help and started on a series of interviews that lasted several months. I'd drive up with my tape recorder (yes, we still had them!) to his home in the foothills up behind Altadena and we'd sit and talk about his early days with the WPA--the Works Project Administration--that kept many artists busy in the days following the Great Depression, recording American social history in photographs, paintings and drawings, murals...; and about his years in the 1950s in New York at the time of the great "Negro" cultural resurgence with such like-minded colleagues as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Lorraine Hansberry, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and a host of others. It was exciting stuff.

But Charlie died in 1979. I was left with my tape recordings and little else to work with, and it struck me with sudden, convincing clarity that the dominant culture in America had always been, and would continue to be White. The only recourse I had was oral history--to go out there into an "art world" I had never known existed, a world of artists, critics, historians whose work had been sidelined by the headlong rush of the American (read, predominantly White) mainstream. I began to follow the bread crumbs Charlie had laid out for me, heading off to the South Side of Chicago, Harlem in New York, Jackson, Missisippi, for God's sake, to meet with artists like John Biggers, David Driskell, Eldzier Cortor, Jacob Lawrence--fine artists of whom, in my ignorance, I had never heard. 

Which is how I discovered just how White I was. I was not merely self-conscious, venturing up beyond New York City's (then still) safely bourgeois West Side into the depths of Harlem. I was, I confess it, actually scared. Would I not be mocked for my whiteness on those streets, if not actually mugged by angry Black men? (This was the 1970s, Black Panther days!) Still, I went. In many places I was the only White face in sight. And... despite my ridiculous fears, I found myself surrounded by nothing but warmth and welcome in those places. I was greeted by artists, curators, writers, with nothing but genuine eagerness to meet and talk. And I felt honored by their generosity.

My take-away from that year of discovery was gratitude, of course, but also an undeniable sense of humility, even shame. I had always thought of myself as a nice, broad-minded, liberal sort of chap and I was confronted with something I had never dreamed I nurtured secretly within me: my racism. There I was, a writer about art and artists, a critic, living with and working on assumptions I had cheerfully made about American art that omitted a whole culture that had remained invisible to me--largely because I had never bothered to look; a culture that remained, insistently, invisible to the powerful and increasingly commercial mainstream. 

That culture was on glorious, multifarious display at the museum yesterday. The work on view was not exclusively by Black artists, though primarily so, but it documented the rich, complex and often exuberant diversity of Black life in America. There were, of course, the two famous, magisterial portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively. I found myself deeply moved by these, recalling how much great, historical potential had been literally stolen from this pair by envious people bent on destroying them. And then the larger portrait show, where I found images by artists I'd been privileged to meet in connection with my Charles White project--Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, David Driskell--along with countless other lesser-known artists whose work was new to me, but equally impressive.

My thought on leaving the show was that the influence of the predominantly White, predominantly commercial mainstream is still powerful in America, but that it is at least under siege. The respect shown by this exhibition to the community of Black artists, and indeed the Black community at large, is belated, perhaps, but still welcome. We know from the unabated stream of tragedies relayed to us by our daily news sources that there is still an unconscionable amount of work for us to do, but this exhibition was a refreshing and inspiring reminder that the work has surely begun, and that the creative energy that inspires and drives it is unstoppable.



Saturday, December 4, 2021

RIGHTS--AND WRONGS

Dear Harry,

I have written to you before of my distress about the political and social culture of my adoptive country. Imagine, now, a father buying his 15-year old son a semi-automatic pistol--for a Christmas present! Imagine the son posting a picture of his new toy on social media and describing it as his "new beauty." Imagine the mother of that son taking him out the next day for target practice at a shooting range. Imagine those parents being called in to the school when their son is discovered making a drawing of shooting victims and appending a big grin of approval, and even then refusing to take him out of school. Imagine, hours later, that son pulling out his pistol and shooting numbers of his classmates--four of them fatally.

Can you even begin to imagine such events, Harry? Over here they come as a shock but no surprise. The worship of guns is pandemic here in America, the political protection of guns owners and the industry that supplies them with weapons is sacrosanct. The terrible, persistent occurrence of tragedies such as this one is apparently no deterrent to a political culture that cowers before the fanaticism of a relatively small number of gun owners and their addiction to a "freedom" they believe is guaranteed by the Constitution. 

As with the current deadly epidemic and the stubborn refusal of millions of Americans to follow the most simple, elementary precautions that could stop it in its tracks, it comes down to the question of individual rights. What I learned from you and from the social environment in which I was raised is that those rights come with the responsibility to observe the rights of others. My choices necessarily affect the lives of those with whom I co-exist. If I insist on remaining unvaccinated and not wearing the recommended mask, I will be the one who passes on disease to my fellow-citizens, resulting quite possibly in their death. Guns in the hands of demented, ill-adjusted teenagers result in the deprivation of life and liberty for those they harm or kill. 

Yet a significant number of we Americans--and yes, Harry, as you well know, I am one now--continue to assert their individual rights without regard for those of others. Witness, too, the years-long attack on abortion rights. I know you'd hate the notion of abortion. But I'm equally sure you would share my view that the right to make one's own choices should not extend to determining the right of others to make theirs.

Most of the people I know are those who share my view, and I like to believe that the majority of my countrymen and women view the insanity around us with dismay. We are held hostage by a political system that has ceased to work, as intended, "for the people." It has been hijacked by a ruthless and fanatical minority; and it needs to be reformed, if the country is ever to be better served by an effective, rational, and compassionate government.

Sorry to bother your eternal rest with such inanities! But it's thanks to your own social conscience that such things trouble me as they do.

With love, Peter

Thursday, December 2, 2021

THE BEATLES

Dear Harry,

I wonder what you thought of the Beatles. Their music was certainly a global phenomenon when you were, what, middle-aged? You must at least have known about them.

That's an odd question, I know, but it occurred to me as Ellie and I watched the three episodes of the new Peter Jackson  documentary based on footage from their last sessions as a band and their now legendary rooftop concert, the last time they were to play publicly together. 

Here's the thing that struck me as I thought about this: to my knowledge, you never took much of an interest in music of any kind--unless is was your various church choirs and the hymns and psalms we used to sing at Parish Mass and Evensong. Oh, we did have a big old upright Victrola at the Rectory--it was in the drawing room, as I recall--but did we have records? What kind were they? The only one I remember was a 78 rpm with on one side "The Laughing Cowboy" and on the other (shamefully) "The Laughing N[word]." Both sides were nothing but raucous laughter. But music? Classical? Dance music? I don't recall. Nor, given the time, do I remember listening to Glen Miller, who must have been a frequent presence on the radio in those days.

As a consequence, perhaps, I don't need music in my life as Ellie does. I have not followed popular music since the 1960s, when I was taken by bands like the Beatles and Surrealistic Pillow. I was teaching at that grammar school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when the Beatles first came to America. The week before their Ed Sullivan show appearance, one of the boys brought me a picture of the lads from Liverpool and I was quite literally shocked by their mop tops and their Teddy Boy clothes. But then I did tune in to the Sullivan show and I was immediately enchanted--by their presence as well as by their music. Along with my "What is the world coming to?" reaction, I was captivated. 

And have remained so ever since. They were a grand team, the four of them, and the songs they produced sound as good today as they did back then. To watch "Get Back"--the title of Jackson's series--was to witness genius at work. Over the course of several days of bickering, joking, smoking, mutual insults and cheerful, often witty self-parody, of misdirections, false starts and overworking, of serious practice and sudden, silly riffs, they put together a masterful last collection of songs. All their efforts came together in that rooftop concert, when all the energy and work of the past couple of weeks seemed to coalesce into a fiercely coordinated, now confidently rocking series of songs that woke the neighborhood and enlivened it with music.

It was a magical performance, Harry. Would you have loved it, as I did? I hope so, even though you were never much one for music. I think you'd have responded to the sheer genius of it, the sheer abundance of life and the fun of acting out. 

With love from your otherwise unmusical son, Peter

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

CANON FODDER

I posted a new picture of my father, Harry, yesterday. He's standing in his clerical clothes at the porch of one of the churches where he served--I think this one is Sharnbrook, in Bedfordshire. He was first called "Fodder" by a little granddaughter, too young to properly pronounce "grandfather." After long years of service to the diocese, he was honored with the title "Canon" by the Bishop of St. Alban's and awarded a canon's seat in the chancel of this great cathedral. Hence "Canon Fodder"--a sobriquet that amused him greatly in his retirement years.

MLK

It's MLK Day here in the US--the day on which we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Thanks to his leadership--and th...