Winter — the season of grey skies and cold wind and early twilights. The season of snowstorms that come in the night, covering everything with a thick white blanket so that when you wake up in the morning the world is hushed and peaceful. I remember those mornings from my childhood in Michigan. Mom would bundle us up in big coats, tuck our pants into rubber galoshes, put on our mittens and tug the knitted hats down over our heads until they covered our whole face except for mouth and eyes — then she would send us out to play in the freshly fallen snow. That was pure bliss. We didn’t even notice the cold. We were busy building snow forts, digging tunnels in the snowbanks, making snow angels. We would play until our noses were running and melted snow had turned to ice around the rims of our galoshes. We would still be playing when we were finally called home or the day grew too dark.
Winter is also the time of desolation — everything looks dead and yet somehow something beautiful emerges. The simplicity of stark black trees against the horizon. A snowflake. Trees gilded in ice.
Australians don’t consider it the “wrong side of the road,” but in my neck of the woods it's just that. So when my husband and I rented a car during a recent visit Down Under, we experimented in the car rental parking lot before heading out. My husband quickly decided that driving in Australia was not for him, or our lives, and handed the task over to me.
For sixteen of eighteen days, I drove, sitting on the “wrong side” of the car, driving on the “wrong side” of the road, using blinkers and wipers that were located on the “wrong side” of the steering column. Many days I drove for five, six, even seven hours a day as we wandered back roads with no definite destination.
I had to focus, then focus again, and again. Each day I would gradually execute basic maneuvers with more automation: turning corners in the proper lane, looking the right direction to yield in a roundabout and backing out of a diagonal parking space into the correct lane. I kept turning on the wipers instead of the blinkers up to the last day of driving, but with extra focus had almost conquered that by the time we flew home.
The function of art has varied widely according to each epoch's artists and patrons.
The ancient Greeks idealized human beauty, heroic deeds and physical prowess. The artists of the iconolatric early medieval age, who were in the service of the church and state, painted saints, priests and emperors. The later medieval ages saw the rise of a new mercantile class who commissioned romanticized portraits of themselves: proof to others of their affluence and power.
Fortunately, the invention of photography in the early 19th century freed art from its limited mimetic representation of nature, people and things — the camera could represent external reality more accurately than a painter's brush, and painters could find new ways to express their visions. Emerging theories argued for abstract and non-representative art and, as a consequence, art movements such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism began to breathe new life into an old format.
In the early 20th century, Freud, echoing Aristotle, saw art as revelation and catharsis. At the same time, Jung felt art expressed archetypal and universal ideas — a theory closer to Plato's perspective. The avant-garde artists of the time championed a new kind of art — one that insisted on a metaphysical attitude. For Duchamp, the inventor of Dadaism, this was “a way to get out of a state of mind — to avoid being influenced by one’s immediate environment, or by the past: to get away from clichés — to get free.”
My mother took me to the circus every year as a child. One year, I asked for a pet turtle instead of the chameleon I usually begged to take home as a souvenir. It occurs to me that I may have chosen the turtle because I didn't want to go through the trauma of the chameleon dying for one reason or another within two weeks of bringing it home. I watched my little turtle walk in circles around the plastic gulley of his cage for a few weeks. Occasionally, he would climb the ramp to the tiny plastic island in the center of his domain to bask under a green, plastic tree.
After a few weeks of watching the turtle walk around, feeding him daily, and occasionally taking him out to play on the cork floor of my room, I grew bored with the little fellow. I think my waning interest was the result of the turtle’s boredom rubbing off on me. I can’t imagine he found his life interesting, trudging around in a small plastic tray day after day, with nothing to look forward to besides a few grains of dried turtle food.
Then I did something unusual. I decided to set the turtle free.
Maya — a Sanskrit word for "the grand illusion," the manifestations of matter and time, and the nature of this world to promise gratification but never quite deliver. Some things are very satisfying — like this morning, having a latte and croissant at the Fairfield Café. Playing with my neighbor’s three-year-old back home makes me happy. Riding my bike is a joyous occasion, but time seems to place a limit on these pleasures. The coffee grows cold, my neighbor’s child becomes annoying, my butt gets sore.
The inner pleasure of knowing my true self, on the other hand, isn’t subject to decay and dissolution; it’s dependent on my focus. By nature it’s very different from those world-based, external pleasures. It doesn’t access me through my senses; it's more like a presence, something I know. This experience informs me that I am complete in this moment right now. It’s reassuring in that way. It’s something I have to relax to feel, not strive to accomplish. That may seem like a subtle difference but it brings up my next point.
I’m traveling in Australia at the moment after attending a five-day event with Prem Rawat near Brisbane. The pleasure of what he teaches and the pleasure of this world form a lovely complimentary relationship. Being able to enjoy this outer world, in fact, seems directly related to being content inside.