Global Mom: Wednesdays With the Louvre

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post: “French School, A Scream”)

**

children louvre

At least as French, but more exquisite to me than sword fighting, was our Wednesday afternoon ritual. In fewer than ten minutes, even with traffic, we could drive from Parc Monceau to the Louvre, park, dart right in, take our lunch at one of the cafés near the glass pyramid (wherever there were the fewest tour groups), wipe our mouths, and, sketchbooks and pencils in hand, make our way to the Richelieu wing.  That is where we found our private sanctuary, the Cour Puget.

cour puget

The Cour Puget is a three-story tiered hall flooded with natural light. Its ceiling is a variation on the famous I.M. Pei glass pyramid. . .

cour puget ceiling. . .Its walls and statues nearly all bone-colored marble.  Entering, you might feel you’re walking into the reception hall of heaven. At least we did. At nine and five years old, our two youngest were normally kinetic experiments gone awry, but when we entered heaven. . .

cour puget 1. . .We all settled into a new rhythm that stirred our creative juices into a mellow foam. This is the setting that made the three of us feel we were artists. More important than becoming artists, though, we became each other’s intimates.

Once – and only once – we thought we’d wander over to the Cour Marly just across the corridor, check out what the Renaissance statutes there were up to; but it didn’t feel right, didn’t feel like our place. “Our place” was the Cour Puget, up on the top tier on a marble bench against the wall.  After a few minutes, one of us would be sprawled or curled up at the foot of the statue we were sketching.  The guards who rotated daily came to expect the three of us there at about the same hour every Wednesday afternoon. A nod, a reciprocated “Bonjour les enfants”, and we knew we were in our element.

“So, who do you think this guy is?” I asked, Dalton on one side, Luc on the left. We were staring up into the piercing eyes of Caton d’Utique.

caton dutique 2

“And check out the serpent,” Dalton said, turning to see a Mr. Universe Spartacus wrestling the beast to the ground.

images

“But why’ve they got this statue of John Kerry?” Luc asked, walking over to a bust of the French scientist, Cuvier.

cuvier

We would go home and Google the background of our favorite statues, then go back the next Wednesday to make up stories, stories we wove into a screenplay, we three floor-squatters.  Ours was an elaborate screenplay about the Louvre and its statues and all the lives embedded in stone. Dalton cast his imagined movie, role-for- role as we three sat with our sketchpads on our laps, capturing a young Joan of Arc or a dying marathon runner in the gentle brilliance of the Cour Puget.

images (1)
cour puget 4
mother child louvre

In every way those Wednesdays were a delight to me. The light, no matter what the weather outside, was always brighter during those hours than anywhere else in the world.  I was with my children, we had baguette crumbs on our sweaters, the sky was warm, we were surrounded by history and beauty and tourists, tourists we realized we were not.   We basked in great art and created mediocre art ourselves, but more importantly, we created a moment that defined the three of us as part of this place, part of each other. I saw to it that a woman in a Louvre children’s bookstore hung my boys’ two best completed works on the official corkboard. We laughed in the van that their artwork now hangs in the Louvre.
mom and kids louvre

**
(To be continued. . .)

Besieging God

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In the scripture story I read aloud to my nine-year-olds in Sunday school class two weeks ago, a man had prayed all through the day and into the night, and into the next day. “Look right here,” I pointed to the page for the kids, “he even says he ‘wrestled’ in prayer. Sounds like it must have been pretty urgent, don’t you think? Sounds as if he really beseeched God.”

Beseeched?” Camille asked, wriggling between Annie and Claire. Nothing gets past these kids, even if sometimes their feet can’t reach the floor when they’re in the grownup chairs. Claire’s eyebrows sloped and pinched together; “What’s beseeched?” “Yeah, what’s that?” Annie asked, curling her lip.

I rattled off a few synonyms: supplicated, pled, importuned.

(More wriggling, sloped brows, curling lips.)

William, wise beyond his nine years, patted his hand on the table, calling everyone to order.

“Besieged,” William said. “What she said was he besieged God.”

That was last Sunday, and this Saturday morning I was still replaying that moment – that word – in my head. Besiege. William had hit on a brilliant thing. In fact, John Donne and Tertullian would have agreed:

Earnest prayer has the nature of importunity. . .We press, we importune God. . .Prayer has the nature of impudence and more. Prayer has the nature of violence; in the public prayers of the congregation, we besiege God, says Tertullian, and we take God prisoner, and bring God to our conditions, and God is glad to be straitened by us in that siege.

-John Donne, in The Complete English Poems of George Herbert, ed. J. Tobin. 347

IMG_2008

With that excerpt scrolling through my thoughts, I moved in and around the clusters of visitors in the Cologne cathedral – Cologne, which in World War II had been a Militärbereichshauptkommandoquartier, one of those confounding German compound words which means a central command station for military purposes.

Prayer as besieging. Cologne as a siege center. The Cologne cathedral as a symbol for besieging prayer.

IMG_2067

When I was a child like Annie, Camille, Claire and William, life was fresh and uncomplicated, my heart was unscathed, my mind all chirpy canary yellow with splashes of robin’s egg blue and the floating fluff of clouds. I realize now I was lucky, as are these four. At nine, I knew nothing of what far too many nine-year-olds in this world do; that life can be harsh, even hostile, often brutal. And in that innocent world it was sufficient to “say my prayers.”

I was taught to say my prayers as soon as I was taught to recite the alphabet. These weren’t rote prayers, but were the simple expressions of a little girl: “Hemly Fader, we sank dee fow dis day. . .”

IMG_2040

I was taught that prayers were heard, and that they were answered. I could trust that God was a loving Father, who would respond with blessings, even if sometimes those blessings might not necessarily come, as I began to learn in my teens, when, how, or in the form I might expect them. But He would hear. And He would respond. This is what God was there for. To keep things under control by answering my prayers.

I was taught to pray both in English and in German, since my parents, who weren’t German but loved things German, wanted us to speak that language. With my head bowed and arms folded reverently across my chest, I would say, “Lieber Vater im Himmel. . .”And our family, at the dinner table after the amen of the prayer over the food, would all hold hands and sort of tug up and down on each other’s hands, chanting, “Guten Appetit-teet-teet, let’s eat!”

God, went my logic, provided for our material needs, including every meal. And He was German.

IMG_2049

At the start of the day with my family next to our dining room table, we often knelt. And I knelt alone, mostly at my bedside at night. When there was an exceptional or acute concern – someone was in trouble, there was a war in a foreign country, a president was being impeached, a church leader was sick, the boy down the street was hit by a train in the night, or Mom was having life-threatening surgery – we circled, knelt, and prayed.

IMG_2014

It’s no exaggeration that I can’t imagine my life up until five and a half years ago void of prayer, which had always been a vital enough element of my intimate connection with my Father in Heaven. Prayer, I experienced as I matured, had consistently opened up channels of strength and understanding that were beyond my natural capacities. Prayer had guided me, had guided things to me, had helped me even have specific things: my husband, for instance, our four incredible children, employment, a place to live every time we moved, health, sanity, answers, wisdom,forgiveness, words for writing, lost keys, lost cameras, lost credit cards and even my lost youngest who’d toddled away in a public park in a seedy part of Paris.

You might call that personal revelation. I do, too.

IMG_1999

Prayer also softened things. The bite of stinging betrayal, self-doubt, loneliness, homesickness, disappointment, anger, rage, indignance.

And it sharpened things. It alerted me to physical and spiritual danger, made me a lot smarter than I actually am in those many moments of dire brain need, and helped me on many occasions discern truth from fraud.

Prayer recharged me. It generated some remarkable healings in other’s lives as well as in my own. My life was literally saved at 14, as a matter of fact, and while doctors and medication and treatment and family support were absolutely central, I believe prayer (and God) facilitated them being so.

IMG_1997

Prayer broke me down. It opened me up for inspection, corrected me, blowtorched some real crusty grime and grit from my moldings, blew the wool clean off of my own sight of myself.

And then prayer hid me. In prayer, I found I was understood, and experienced that I was already known to a caring God, who is (this should be no surprise given that he’s God) always an eternal step ahead of me. He knew my needs long before they even became my needs.

IMG_2000

Many years ago, lying flat on my stomach, face smushed to one side, I’d explained my feelings about prayer to a massage therapist, Vickie. She pummeled me regularly over my childbearing and child-on-the-hip-carrying years, trying to treat the debilitating lower back spasms that used to hit without warning and landed me many times on a stretcher, in a hospital, and always in bed and on mega muscle relaxants for a couple of weeks each time.

“Vickie, it’s like this,” I said. “I petition the Lord, and the response is immediate, almost, as if he’d been anticipating my question. The answers and blessings come so freely. All these wonderful, undeserved blessings. They’ve really built my faith.”

IMG_1984

Vickie, who could not have known that in a few weeks from that hour she was going to be diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer, kept kneading my muscles. She sighed at my comment. Lately, she’d been feeling much more tired than usual.

“Yeah,” she said, planting her palms on either side of my lumbar vertebrae, sending heat. “I guess so, Melissa. But that’s not where it ends. I think it’s when you don’t get the FedEx online-shopping-cart answer to your prayers when you really find out what you know.” She lifted her hands to sweep her hair from her face. “It’s when you don’t get your wish list that you see God really, really clearly.”

Massage therapists. They’ve got some special thing.

Vickie’s words came back to me in full timbre when I heard of her diagnosis.

Was prayer going to whonk this one for Vickie, steamroll it? I prayed for major whonking. I trusted in prayer-as-steamroller. Last I heard, Vickie’s still in remission.

IMG_1951

Then Vickie’s words came back again in July of 2007. The summer of implosion. It was through implosion that I relearned prayer, much like I relearned breathing. In fact, prayer became my essential breath. It was also then I started seeing things, including God, much more clearly.

Saying my prayers wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Neither was mere beseeching.

This was the besieging season.

IMG_2038

“Kids,” I said last Sunday in our little church class, “I know what it’s like to be this man in the scriptures.” I reported this with studied dispassion, like a journalist. No need to frighten the kids. No need to share sacred emotion. “I know what it’s like to go somewhere and stay there praying all day, all night, all day again. Did you know, friends, you can pray without words? Mm-hum. You can even fall on your face and cry and, ta-da!, it’s a prayer! Or you can groan, pound your fists, and maybe even yell up into the sky. All prayer.”

Annie’s large blue eyes grew larger, bluer.

IMG_2025

“So. . . what was it?” Claire asked, “What made you pray like that?” She looked like someone from the New York Times perched in the front row of the press corps.

Camille popped up on her knees on her chair and shook her light brown hair around her shoulders, singing, “Didn’t you have a son who died?”

I looked at William, inches to my left, his soft smile unchanged. Exquisite. When I dream of Parker, strangely enough, I so often dream of him at age nine.

“I still have a son,” I corrected her, smiling, “And yes, he died.”

IMG_2026

Those words felt unnatural – spiky and metallic – in my mouth. I could still tongue and taste them nearly a week later while meandering through Cologne’s cathedral.

IMG_1947

Besieging God with prayer. I know the taste of that, too. Broken capillaries in my eyes. Bruises on my palms from pounding on the tiled kitchen floor at 3:00 a.m. Scuffling through Munich’s English Garden in a downpour, talking to the wretched leafless branches. Behind the steering wheel for hours and hours in a loop on the Autobahn. Head tucked into my sternum to avoid banal contact with the public, draining tears and whispers into my lap in the back pew at church.

And head thrown back, staring at the highest point I can focus on, way above the mountains, out there where hope lies. . .

. . .Trying to sing a hymn to myself, but finding sound log-jammed below my heart.

All through the night. The day, The night again. And weeks, months. These years.

IMG_2029

Besieging prayer isn’t about external drama. God can see through hypocritical audience-targeted theatrics. Let’s face it: those prayers have their mortal hearers. The prayer I’m talking about can happen entirely within the ribcage, even while sitting in a public space like, say, a cathedral.

IMG_2069

In that case, it might not bear a single toolmark of outward pathos. But the inward soundtrack could shatter glass.

This prayer wants to pierce and penetrate what might sometimes feel like an opaque canopy stretched over our earth and our minds, keeping us from the big – biggest – picture. That kind of prayer isn’t tidy and toothless, in fact it hardly has anything to do with “saying one’s prayers”, but is jagged-edged in its raw and dynamic vertical groping and yes, it’s not a one-off stab at “the prayer thing.”

If rendered in stone, that prayer would probably look something like the Cologne cathedral, and might take a long time to reach its point.

IMG_2022

This cathedral? A mere 600 years.

All those spires. Aspiring. Besieging for inspiration.

IMG_2058

From pastor and author Dennis Lennon, who describes in Turning The Diamond George Herbert’s sonnet, “Prayer”:

We pray because prayer works, and because it changes things. It changes the world and it is able to penetrate the hearts of men to change their ways. . .[It] even ‘changes’ God, in the sense that a captor ‘changes’ his prisoner. This hair-raising, staggeringly risky picture takes up the idea of the old military engineer’s construction for siege and assault, his ‘engine’ to batter the enemy’s defenses, tunnel under his trenches and blow open the gates of this fortress.

–Lennon, 44-45

You find intimations of this from John Donne, both soldier and poet:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

– Divine Meditations, 14

In a verse like that from Donne, as Lennon writes, there’s no trace of “over-familiarity with the Lord” (like the guy who chuckles, saying, “Hey, when I get to those pearly gates, boy I’ll tell you am I ever going to give the Boss a piece of my mind!”) Instead, there’s a “healthy and realistic awareness of [our] frailty, of life hanging by a thread. . .It suggests a mountaineer pressed up against a rock-face, holding on, just, by the tips of his fingers.”

Or the tips of her fingers.

The man from the scripture story and my Sunday school class experience was not Jacob of the Old Testament. But he resembled him. Jacob, as you probably know, “wrestled” with an angel. His is the story I’ll end with here, because it resonates – it booms – throughout the whole cathedral of my soul.

IMG_2075

IMG_2047

IMG_2077

Jacob was in a desperate life-or-death situation, in “great fear and distress”, but was hanging on to a promise God had given him long ago, and was ready – in the middle of the night, all alone, with death breathing down his neck– to “wrestle” for that blessing. “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” (Genesis 32:24)

IMG_2082

Lennon describes this:

We know ‘the man’ was a theophany, God incognito, for next day Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I saw God face to face’ and lived to tell his story. . .What passed through Jacob’s mind as he grappled with his opponent, crashing around on the bank of the river? At some point the realization dawned (or was it a lightning flash of revelation?) that he was fighting with a God-man, a man representing God: God-as-man. . . .At some point Jacob said to himself, “O my God! It’s God!! I don’t know what’s going on here but now that I have him I’ll show him, how desperately I need him for myself, my family, and my future people. If this is God, I’ll prove to him that I believe him with every scrap of energy within me. Everything I have known about God – those amazing stories, the traditions, the prayers, the history (all words, words, words) are now in my embrace and I will not let go until I have the blessing’–something along those lines? – 49,50

IMG_2079

Jacob, in the throes of besieging prayer, had a life-changing experience. How life-changing, you ask? Well, God changed his name to Israel, which means “he is ruled.”

From that point on and forever more, the man ruled by God walked with a limp.

Could God have chosen a more unambiguous way to indicate his pleasure at Jacob’s tenacious, tough-minded, audacious faith? The new name tells the world this man wrestled with God and over-came. The limps tells the world – look at the weakness of this man’s strength. – 51

When I finished taking all these photographs, I slung my bulky camera bag on one shoulder and made my way up the nave toward the massive cathedral doors. Before pushing out into the glittering drizzle, I hoisted the weight one last time, thrusting a hip out to one side for balance, which made me list. Or even limp.

upright rain image

Intensifigation

What defines brilliance?

What is the relationship between creativity and insanity?

How do you judge what is inspired and what is insipid?

What breeds eccentricity: extraordinary gifts, or the drive to be extraordinary?

What breeds the extraordinary: excellence, extremes, excess or some combination of the three?

Or something else altogether?

Is there really such a thing as an inborn artistic temperament, and how does one temper it?

Do you necessarily want to?

What makes the difference between a bright mind and one that ignites randomly, setting the soul on fire?

Whose self-painted eyes are these?

Why did he sell only one painting in his lifetime?

Why did his neighbors call him the “fou roux”, (the crazy redhead), demanding he be institutionalized?

Why did he cut off part (or some say all) of this ear?

Why did he admit himself for a full year to an asylum?

How could he paint, in that one year, 150 canvases?

And why did only seven of any of his canvases draw any public attention whatsoever during his lifetime?

Why, just a few months after that calming and productive institutionalization, and just as some of his work was noticed by critics for the first time, why then did he kill himself?

Why, a century later, are seven of his paintings among those that have drawn the highest dollar in history at auction? ($147 mill, $107 mill, $80 mill. . .)

Why are all those above-mentioned works among those he painted during that year in asylum, the last year of his life?

And why has this man — and why have his eyes —- followed me for the last five days? Stared me down for the last 35 years?

**

Five miles over the Alpilles from Maussane lies St. Rémy, a bubbling Provençal hub with its weekly market, grayed lavender and periwinkle blue shutters, squares shaded by speckled plane trees, and our favorite barber who for 42 years has cut men’s hair and shaved their beards in the same small shop off the plaza where (the same barbered) men used to play péntaque every day after lunch.

St. Rémy is a plateful of all you can hope for in deliciousness and a paletteful of all a painter could want in vividness. Yet acres and acres of soft slopes colored in peace and quiet.

That thick quiet suffused with a special light and the sun-warmed earth are what drew the crazy redhead to retreat here to a cloister called St. Paul-le-Mausole just outside St. Rémy’s center.

The cloister, dating from the early Christian period, is part of a small compound bearing the name of the nearby Roman mausoleum. The mausoleum – an imposing tower and arch — are the first structures discovered from the adjacent Roman community called Glanum, completely uncovered a generation after the painter lived a few hundred meters from it.

But the painter rarely if ever walked outside of the walls of the cloister. He wouldn’t have seen the tower.  In fact, his letters suggest he kept not just within the walls of the cloister, but mostly within the walls of his two rooms.

There, he seemed to find plenty to stimulate his acute eye and unquiet mind.

Asylum of St. Rémy

He wrote about what he saw through the small barred windows:

“A view of the garden of the asylum where I am, on the right a gray terrace, a section [of] the house, some rosebushes that have lost their flowers; on the left, the earth of the garden – red ochre – earth burnt by the sun, covered in fallen pine twigs. This edge of the garden is planted with large pines with red ochre trunks and branches, with green foliage saddened by a mixture of black. These tall trees stand out against an evening sky streaked with violet against a yellow background. High up, the yellow turns to pink, turns to green. A wall – red ocher again – blocks the view, and there’s nothing above it but a violet and yellow ochre hill. Now, the first tree is an enormous trunk, but struck by lightning and sawn off. A side branch, thrusts up very high, however, and falls down again in an avalanche of dark green twigs. This dark giant – like a proud man brought low – contrasts, when seen as the character of a living being, with the pale smile of the last rose on the bush, which is fading in front of him. Under the trees, empty stone benches, dark box. The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun – the last glimmer – exalts the dark ocher to orange – small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks.”

I’ll bet you’ve seen these paintings. Maybe you even remember, as I do, the first time you saw any of them.  Maybe the moment knocked you flat. It did me.

**

I’d just become a teenager and was in Europe for the first time, and found myself standing in a famous museum creaking along the wooden floors until I paused — froze — in the middle of a room entirely full of his works.  Irises.  Sunflowers. Cypresses.  Wheat fields.  A glimmering, disco-ball starry night.

In that hour I felt what you felt, too, probably: I and I alone had discovered electricity.

Not the Ben Franklin current. And nothing as banal as a pronged plug at the end of a twisted plastic chord.

What I’d found was more like what would have happened had I stuck my tongue right into the socket of the center of the universe.  Scorched through.  Whizz-zammed.  Lifted off my toes by thunder.

I crept closer to the canvas — as close as I could get without getting slapped by a guard — to see if the brushstrokes still smelled of oil. Weren’t they painted just an hour ago?  And then I looked both ways, thinking maybe if I staged the right distraction or turned at the perfect angle, I could lick the canvas.  Honest.  Weren’t chunks of color that fresh and moist made to be tasted?

Today, they are in every dentist’s office, those pictures.  And you can pick them up in every Three-For- $4.99 student print shop.  (You’ll find them right between the posters of greased surfers and kittens hanging on a clothes line by their paws.)

As soon as Randall and I, students at the time, had saved $20, we bought a “Starry Night.”

We framed it ourselves with a plate of discount glass and cheap little clippy thingies.  And it followed us in that simple frame from house to house for years.  When we eventually visited Amsterdam, we’d graduated from grad school and to a big, canvas reprint of those succulent almond blossoms.

We had it framed professionally this time (hand painted wood and all), and it’s followed us ever since.  Both works were painted in that intense last year at St. Rémy.

Much like they’ve become clichés those two pieces, so have the painter’s life and even his name. I heard, for example, an automobile manufacturer tried to market a family car using his name: Van Go.  The campaign didn’t make it out of the starting gates due to legal snags.

We can all thank our lucky starry nights.

And now here I was again, strolling the modest garden that once grew the irises he captured with his brush.

Walking by the old stone wall with his cypresses,

standing beside his bleached blue door,

circling the inner courtyard where he’d walked in an infinite loop for hours on end,

hearing his own description of what his peculiar and fiery eye saw. What my thick lenses hardly notice:

“You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red’.”

To a friend, he wrote of his

“. . .Moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.”

To his sister he wrote:

“I should like to paint portraits which appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavor to achieve this through photographic resemblance, but my means of our impassioned emotions — that is to say using our knowledge and our modern taste for color as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character.”

“Intensification of character.”

Van Gogh himself. As well as being a genius with his tormented, mercurial moods, furious and radiant manic episodes, passions at once so violent and so virtuous, he feared he was the devil and his brother thought he was a saint.  His vigor was physical, intellectual and spiritual, making for such a tempestuous existence, he seemed fated from early on to self-extinguish — destitute, alone, a pauper — as he in fact did at an early age.

And so I wonder.  I ask again all those questions at the top of this post.  Is “intensification of character” and all its distantly-related cousins — passion, zeal, pushing and obliterating boundaries, creativity, perfection, sensation-seeking — are they really, in the tragic end, all they’re cracked up to be? Isn’t surviving — reliable steadiness, normal plodding through, being there for others — a pretty intense quest? All by itself?

What price art?

I have no answer. Except perhaps to the first question:

What defines brilliance?

Well, that’s an easy one:

Which begs the obvious: What price no art? 

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.