Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas night post

Seven days before Christmas Eve I joined my old friend Bridget to sing Christmas carols.

Backing up some: Bridget was a colleague during during my employ at the Quaker retreat center circa 2012. She is a practicing (and exceptionally devoted) Quaker, and earlier this month she invited me to sing Christmas carols with her monthly meeting in the Philadelphia exurbs. In going willingly I probably forfeited the rest of whatever goth cred I had left, but what the hell. I like spending time with Bridget and besides, I was promised cookies and hot cider.

The evening was the antidote to a month of recorded & compulsory Christmas music at the workplace. Singing the seasonal standards ("We Three Kings," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," etc.) in a meeting house with a group of the Christian faithful (even if I am myself an atheist and apostate Episcopalian) who WANT to sing is the polar opposite of having recordings of the same songs pumped into your workplace eight hours a day. Fellowship makes the difference. So does contributing to and experiencing the music as a living shared event rather than as a digital artifact. For about 45 minutes I actually enjoyed these songs again.

Afterwards I chatted with Bridget and with a gentleman named Chip, who I believe was one of the meeting's elders. I asked him how old the meeting house was, and in the course of his answer he related a story about the pair of farmers who were responsible for its construction. As luck would have it, a version of the story is on the meeting's website (and was probably composed by Chip himself), but it was more striking to hear it told. Some people are better orators than authors.

But in the spirit of the season, I'd like to share an excerpt of Chip's story here:
Today, the Pocopson creek flows unrestricted through Chester County farmland until it reaches the Brandywine. This was not always the case. Towards the end of the 18th century a water-rights dispute arose between two Quaker farmers. Isaac Baily’s farm was upstream from that of Richard Barnard and Baily had built a dam for his own irrigation purposes. Unfortunately, this dam significantly restricted the flow and had a serious impact on the availability of Richard Barnard’s water.
Water use rights clearly identify Barnard as the injured party. However, all of his attempts to explain this to his neighbor were met with contentious replies. Quakers (Friends) were loath to take anyone to court, let alone another Quaker. Thus, no legal action was taken and other Friends became involved, but Isaac Baily remained intransigent.

This state of affairs caused much frustration to Richard Barnard. One day Barnard described the issue to a traveling Quaker Minister. The response was brief but pointed. The minister said “Richard, more is required of some than others.” This answer precipitated some deep reflection. After some consideration and prayer, the next step became clear.

Early one morning Richard Barnard collected a bottle of water and cloths before beginning the hike upstream to his neighbor’s farm. He arrived and knocked on the door, only to find out that Isaac Baily was still in bed. Undeterred, Barnard pushed forward, entered his neighbor’s bedchamber and expressed a deep desire for friendship. To consummate this friendship, Barnard announced his intention to wash Baily’s feet. At first, the response to this overture was the same contentiousness that Baily had become known for. Barnard had to be quite insistent to accomplish his purpose. However, as Baily’s feet were washed and then dried, a calm fell over the scene. Afterwards, Baily rose, dressed and accompanied Barnard to the door.

The day did not pass before Richard Barnard overheard the work of the dam being breached so that the water could flow unrestricted. The story does not end here. Richard Barnard and Isaac Baily soon became fast friends. Several years later, Barnard broke his leg in an accident. This kind of event can be devastating for any farmer whose livelihood depends on physical activity. Fortunately, Isaac Baily was there to invest much of his own time and effort to sustain the Barnard farm through the crisis.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

In memoriam: Jack Collom (1931–2017)

the ogre said to his daughter:
sixteen miles from this place
is a tree
round the tree are tigers
and bears, and scorpions
and snakes
on the top of three
is a very great fat snake
on his head
is a little cage
in the cage is a bird
and my soul is in that bird
——Jack Collom, from Exchanges of Earth and Sky (2006)
Solstice. This taxing, time-dilated Common Era Year 2017 is finally ticking down to its end, and I doubt many of us will be looking back fondly on it.

This year I lost two people who were important to me. The first was Hannah, who I've already talked about. Three months later, she's still completely unaccounted for. I'm not ready to say anything else about her yet.

The second was Jack Collom—teacher, poet, naturalist—who passed on this last July the second. I've mentioned him before. Until this month I had no idea he died. It didn't come as a shock: he was already an old man wearing a nasal cannula and wheeling a tank of oxygen around with him when I met him in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 2008. Occasionally while leafing through his work in the years since, I'd think to google him and make sure he was still among the living. This time the answer was finally 'no.'

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Fernand Léger: some words and pictures

August 19 [1955]—This journal records too many deaths. Now it is Léger's. He was the greatest artist of our time. He will not only live, he will father an art.

—John Berger, A Painter of Our Time (1958)

For several months now I've been in the employ of an art museum, though my job is really only enviable for its setting (if anything). Not long ago the gift shop was cleaning out its storage space and came across a trove of Fernand Léger postcards left over from a 2013 special exhibition. Many of the cards feature artworks that were on loan from other museums and private collectors, and even if there were willing buyers for 1000+ of these things, the expiration of the temporary reproduction rights makes selling them somewhat dicey from a legal standpoint. So the only thing to do was toss them out. I intervened to rescue a batch from the dumpster, so I'm pretty much set for my epistolary life. Some of them I'm going to tape to my walls. When you're wealthy, you acquire original artworks to display in your home and impress your guests. When you're poor, you grab postcards of artworks to stick up in your bedroom to suit yourself.

Léger has become one of my favorite painters. I was introduced to him pretty much accidentally three years ago, when I was reproducing William Carlos Williams' The Descent of Winter and searching for visual art I understood as 'modernist' to align with Williams' diary entries/poems/miniature essays. That was how I first came to know Léger and his 1919 opus La Ville (The City). A lake of curatorial ink could be spilled (and has been spilled) in the exegesis of this painting, but the work needs nobody to speak for it. The composition, its title, and its date tell the whole story, and all the rest is critical salary work. La Ville is a dream or hallucination of the modern metropolis, looming and labyrinthine, blazing with electric lights, thrumming with motor traffic, and checkered with vivid pictoral adverts. The city as a dense human settlement has existed since at least 4500 BC, but it was only in the first decades of the twentieth century that the city as we recognize it emerged onto the world. This new composite organism of humanity and machinery so captivated Léger that he made it the singular focus of his oeuvre during the years between World War I and the Great Depression, the moment of his artistic prime.