The Gift

On Christmas last year my stepfather gave me a gift, but before I started to open it, he said, “Wait. There’s baggage that comes with this gift, Linda.” I know about gifts—after all I am the daughter and step-daughter of anthropologists.

            “All right,” I said, and started opening the wrapping paper.

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It was a coffee table book on Tibet, one that in all likelihood he had picked up from his living room side table. Bill has been fascinated with Tibet since a brief visit there five years ago.

             “I want you and Blase to take me to Tibet,” he said.

I love this man. He married my mother when I was myself a young bride, and they had a glorious and passionate life until she died in 1997. Bill is now ninety-two—I would do anything for him. He is the one person I often speak to about my mother, a courageous woman who remains a constant inspiration to me. Bill always sends me a note on her birthday.

Bill wanted me to organize our trip, not travel with an organized tour like his previous visit. But Tibet is not easy to enter. You have to travel either from Kathmandu or China. Outsiders cannot visit Tibet as one would a western European country, France for example—climbing the Eiffel Tower, visiting Notre Dame, or taking the train to Versailles. Any person visiting Tibet needs not only a Chinese visa, but a Tibetan visa, and a guide to go anywhere outside of the capital, Lhasa. I made contact with a Tibetan guide service, determined that our trip would benefit the Tibetan people.

I asked my daughter, Ariel, if she wanted to join the three of us, and she jumped at the opportunity. We talked about what painting supplies we would take with us and began looking forward to painting together. Meanwhile, well-meaning friends warned me it would be dangerous to take Bill from sea-level to over 12,000 feet.” They had a point, but when I mentioned this to Bill, he waved it off. “I’ll take Diamox and be fine.”

Obtaining our Chinese visas was the first hurdle. For various bureaucratic reasons Bill’s application was rejected twice, while ours went through after some artful arranging. Several weeks passed and the timing was getting down to the wire. Without Bill’s Chinese visa, we couldn’t apply for the Tibetan visas, and if we didn’t do that shortly, it would be too late. I called Bill.

            “Bill, what do you think?”

            “Maybe I’m just not meant to go,” he said.

            “Well, if you’re not going, we’re not going.”

            “Oh, no!” he said. You must go! The three of you must go without me.”

Getting our visas was arduous, but the re-applications, hotel reservations, letters, documents, and day by day plans had worn me out. I’d spent so much time organizing this trip, arranging, choosing accommodations, and so forth, that I was ready to let it go. Bill was the impetus; without him I was no longer sure about going.

I called Ariel and told her it didn’t seem Bill would get his visa in time and we needed to decide if we would go without him. Blase was on the fence because his mother’s health was failing. I didn’t know what Blase would decide. I hoped he’d come with us, but wanted her to know it might be just the two of us.

“It’s fine just the two of us.” she said.

          “We’ll have to be courageous,” I replied.

           “We can do it.”

She wanted to go no matter what. It was decided. Ariel and I would go with or without the men.

Detail from   Journey  , Outdoor Installation by Tristan Govignon at Old frog Pond Farm & Studio. Photo: Robert Hesse

Detail from Journey, Outdoor Installation by Tristan Govignon at Old frog Pond Farm & Studio. Photo: Robert Hesse

Blase visited his mother and after speaking with her and his brothers, he felt more at ease about being away and said he wanted to join us. On Monday, I wrote to Samdup, the person arranging our Tibetan itinerary, wired payment for the trip, and gave the ok to apply for our three Tibetan visas. These were being processed when on Thursday afternoon Bill received his Chinese visa from the embassy.  

I wrote again to Samdup:

                        Bill has his visa. I have attached the copy below. Please add him to our trip.

I didn’t know if there was time to re-apply as a quartet, but I was determined to do everything possible to have Bill go with us. Samdup replied that they needed to resubmit everything, but he would see what he could do to expedite the process. We still have not heard definitively, and our flight to Beijing leaves on Thursday, but we are planning to board our China Air airplane, fly to Beijing, and hopefully to Lhasa.

I still wonder a little, especially in the middle of the night, if we are we supposed to go. But I trust that without knowing the reason, there is something important for us to experience. Ariel and I are excited to share this opportunity with Blase and Bill, to visit a country surviving despite the trauma of its recent history, a country rich in spiritual teachings, one that has already brought so much wisdom to the West.

Cover Drawing by Robert Spellman for The Wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism, edited by Reginald Ray, Shambhala Pocket Library.

Cover Drawing by Robert Spellman for The Wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism, edited by Reginald Ray, Shambhala Pocket Library.

Long Shadows

Dear Blog Readers,

Happy New Year!

The last blog I wrote was before I left for a Buddhist pilgrimage to India in early October. When people ask how was the journey, I usually begin to talk about painting. Uncharacteristically, I journaled throughout the trip not with words, but with small watercolor paintings of important sites and experiences. Now, as this year ends, I am turning towards words as a way to understand how I was changed by the trip and to share it with you. It’s been a curious enfolding.

  Caw caw caw crows shriek in the white sun over grave stones . . .                                                                       —Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish

When I was a young child, a large Arborvitae grew outside our small row house in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial city with streets of row houses and screen doors that banged. We were among the few Jewish families, and we drove to Center City Philadelphia to celebrate holy days in the city’s oldest synagogue, Rodeph Shalom. The recitation of the Kaddish was my favorite part of the service because the grownups rose while the children remained seated, and the endless rhythmic chanting of V-im-ru ah-mein in the mourner’s prayer made me feel I belonged to a great sadness. However, when I was fourteen, I became disillusioned with Judaism and became interested in Eastern religions, eventually taking Buddhist vows.

The pilgrimage to India was a journey to the roots of Buddhist spirituality. Our group of sixteen Zen practitioners meditated under the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment, and listened to the Abbot of our monastery give a talk on Vulture Peak where the Buddha gave many sermons to his followers 2500 years ago. We visited the sites of the Buddha’s birth and of his death, a cave where he meditated, and stupas built to honor his most faithful disciples and his mother. I painted it all.

The Bodhi Tree, India sketchbook, LH

The Bodhi Tree, India sketchbook, LH

Painting from the bus window, India sketchbook, LH

Painting from the bus window, India sketchbook, LH

On the last day of our trip, I saw the headlines, “Eleven Jews killed in the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue.” I remember thinking something like, ‘it never ends’, but my reaction was shallow.

When I returned home from India all I wanted to do was to paint. The Catalpa Tree was waiting for me outside my studio—this giant of a tree that I had been drawing and painting over the last six months.

Catalpa Tree at Old Frog Pond Farm

Catalpa Tree at Old Frog Pond Farm

Dissatisfied with my prior efforts to capture its strength, I decided to paint the energy of its massive trunks, not the outer form of the tree. I painted one painting, tacked it to the wall, and started another, sometimes going back to work on an earlier one after it had dried. Around painting number five, this great sadness welled up inside me. What was I doing? Where was it coming from?

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Some of the paintings had fire and flame; not just trunk and furrowed bark. I listened closely, and from my heart rose up the words, “On October 27, 2018 eleven Jews were killed at the Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh.” I knew I had to paint eleven paintings to honor each person who died. Their names were familiar—Rabinowitz, Rosenthal, Stein. I come from a long line of Steins on my mother’s side.

A few weeks of seeing the paintings on my studio wall, I decided to do something to make the deaths more visible. I cut each painting across at the height to mark each person’s age at the time of the shooting. I added a new section and then restored the painting to wholeness by reattaching the cut-off section.

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The Arborvitae of my childhood, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Bodhi Tree in India, and the Catalpa outside my studio at Old Frog Pond Farm in Harvard all blended, each tree unique and yet all sharing the same roots. My journey to India connected me not only to Buddhism’s beginnings, but to my natal tribe. 

In creating art we can transcend tragedy. We can also integrate the parts of ourselves that we have kept hidden. When asked about my trip to India, I still begin with, “I painted.”

May all beings have abundant peace in the New Year.

May we always see the perfection in the other.

May we care for the earth with great love.

May we not forget those who came before us and gave us life.

            V-im-ru ah-mein (and we say, Amen.)

Note: This series of paintings will be on exhibit in the Camilla Blackman Concert Hall at Indian Hill Music in Littleton, MA beginning March 1 with a closing reception on April 26th. And if you would like to hear a transcendent instrumental piece I recommend listening to Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Kaddish. for violin and piano.

 

A Chalice of Spirit, Art, and Nature

Six months ago, I was asked by a small committee if I would make a chalice for the First Congregational Unitarian Church of Harvard. They would soon be welcoming a new minister, and it was to be a symbol of this new beginning. A chalice – hmm, I had no idea. At the Last Supper, Jesus drank from a wine-filled cup, and it became the much sought after Holy Grail, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with this Christian object of worship.

The committee explained that their chalice commission was not actually a cup, but a flaming chalice, the official symbol of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Association. It represents two important liturgical symbols—the chalice and the flame—and they are united by two circles.

The Unitarian Universalist website says, “We are a house without walls, a congregation without spiritual boundaries.” This symbol, likewise, seems to hold no one meaning or interpretation, but to represent the broadest possible teachings of significant importance in the Unitarian Church—generosity, love, justice, compassion, as well as service and sacrifice for others.

Light, flames, candles, and sacred fires cross religious boundaries. In my childhood synagogue, there was an ornate lamp hanging in front of the ark where the Torah was stored. It hung by three golden chains from the high domed ceiling. I often wondered if it was really an eternal lamp, and considered, while I sat through a long service, the logistics of filling it with oil and lighting it.

Light is easy to identify with, but I wasn’t asked to make the light but the chalice to support it. Then I remembered the story of Siddhartha before he became the Buddha. For six years after leaving his home, Siddhartha followed many teachers and excelled at the most austere practices. At one point, so emaciated that he was close to death, he realized that he was not getting closer to what he was seeking. That’s when he recalled sitting under an apple tree as a child while the adults were plowing the fields; he remembered his calm state of mind. He resolved to take nourishment, find this calm mind again, and sit under a tree until he reached enlightenment.

I’m an orchardist in a town well-known for its beautiful orchards. Our fruit trees offer us sustenance and beauty. Trees also offer refuge. I think we can all remember sitting against the trunk of a tree; it’s so simple, and universal. Inspired by my own love for trees and the Buddha’s story, I decided to use the image of a tree for Harvard’s Unitarian Church’s chalice. I made the trunk to support the chalice bowl and sculpted two small seated figures leaning against its trunk, enjoying the peacefulness, exemplifying a calm abiding, an equanimity. Above the figures, for the two circles, I used tree branches. The branches will encircle a glass sphere oil lamp (not pictured).

I made the sculpture in wax and had it cast into bronze. (I will write about bronze casting in another blog.) This Sunday it will be lit for the first time. The service begins at 10:00 am, 9 Ayer Road in the center of Harvard. All are welcome!

First Congregational Unitarian Church of Harvard Chalice

First Congregational Unitarian Church of Harvard Chalice