New Year, New Day

Old Man Practicing Calligraphy

The large brush laden with water is drawn from the bucket by the old, steady hand and moved in deliberate strokes across the pavement.  One stroke, two, three or more until the complete character develops.  Luminous lines, black on grey stone he moves onto the next character.  The words from the ancient Tang poem begin to take shape.  Even in the afternoon sun it is bone cold, but he keeps on writing.  Before he reaches the end of the stanza, the first characters have begun to fade.  When he comes to the end, more than half the poem is gone – leaving no trace.

All across China, one finds elderly men practicing calligraphy in this way.  In parks, on sidewalks in big cities and small towns, men armed with a bucket and a long brush incessantly trace out words from times long past.  Old poems, classical tales, and bits of history they learned as young boys or men – words flowing out of their brushes and fading almost as quickly as they were born again.

They say they do this to keep their minds sharp and hands strong.  Lately, I have been contemplating the spiritual or cathartic value of producing such transient and beautiful art with personal subjects.  It could be so liberating!  Because it is a public expression, sharing and communicating the experience stops it from being bottled up inside.  As the words fade, so do one’s attachment to the events or people that formed the basis of your composition.  Calligraphy therapy.

At this time of the New Year when we often contemplate our lives and make adjustments to try to live better or healthier, be kinder, more patient, less greedy etc., I thought that this image and concept might be useful to some of you.

Years ago, in graduate school I employed a sort of food-based catharsis with alphabet soup.  I’d spell the name of the person or thing out on the rim of the bowl and eat it last after all the soup was gone, chewing each letter slowly to make sure it was gone completely and would trouble me no more.  Not the most tasty way to eat soup, but a satisfying one if someone or something is vexing you. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Old Man Practicing Calligraphy by Chen Po Chuan @ Dreamstime.com).

Oceans of Time

A Rider in Ramses Palace

As another year draws to an end on the Julian-Gregorian calendar, it is time to bid farewell to the old and ring in the new; to forget the failures and sins of the past (at least for a few hours); and to pray to or resolve in some way to do better in the future. I woke this morning to find the forest blanketed in a few inches of surprise snow and look forward to a quiet, contemplative passage amidst this crystalline, whitewashed landscape.

A couple of hundred years ago, these rolling hills were pastureland traversed by streams. Now, our woods are made up of tall, deciduous hardwoods, a few gnarly, old pines, and some large hollies, bejeweled at this time of year in rubies and garnets. Fallen giants lay strewn like burnt matchsticks in the snow forming the basis for a rich, new forest floor.

Taking a great leap back in time, the great desert that today stretches from North Africa through the Levant made up part of the bottom of the vast Tethys Sea. Today, this area is covered with sand that ranges from warm, silky Saharan sand that allows one to silently pass to hard, calcium, salt-rich sand that crackles underfoot.

The sand all around can be transformed into clear glass, and great cities and dynasties can fall to dust. Transience . . . impermanence . . . No matter how hard we try for immortality, time, more often than not, has other plans.

On the blazingly hot August afternoon that I took this photograph, I watched the donkey trod slowly and methodically across the ruins of the palace, crunching eons of history beneath his hooves. The palace was once unequaled for its splendor and beauty – occupied by one of Ramesses’ sons and his court. Lives, loves, and intrigues were all played out within these walls that had long-ago fallen away. The path that led now leads to the souk was once a colonnaded reception hall for a prince who later became a pharaoh – a God descended. An Egyptian mud brick here, a piece of Greek pottery or Roman vessel there, the donkey was indiscriminate in his destruction as he strode on.

Some of the great empires and metropolises of the Silk Road have met the same fate as Ramesses’ palace, others have had modern cities grow up around them and eventually devour them, leaving a tourist attraction or a museum in place of a living, breathing humanity.

Modern physics teaches us that time is not linear progression, but rather like space it folds over on itself. So it follows that if you listen or look carefully, that you can hear and see the fragmented echoes of history in the present. China’s Jews may have vanished, but the coarse hair and Caucasoid facial features of their descendants remain. Similarly, the modern merchants who profit off of the sales of shark’s fin and bird’s nests for expensive, Chinese delicacies have forgotten that the great explorer, Zheng He brought these foods back to China from Southeast Asia. Readers of the Silk Road Gourmet, however, can feel and taste the remnants of China’s first great age of globalization in every bite.

Like the artisan restoring a lost mural, first the outline becomes clear and then one-by-one the details become evident as we find the past constantly informs the present. In the act of restoring the past, the man from the future also effects the past – at the very least by changing the knowledge and appreciation of it in the present and future.

If asked, “Who was the most important person of the 20th Century?” Most people would probably answer with the name of a prominent politician – perhaps Franklin Roosevelt or Mikhail Gorbachev, or a scientist like Einstein or an inventor like Bill Gates. Few if any would utter the names of Frank Fenner or DA Henderson who prevented the deaths of uncounted billions of people by conceiving and implementing the ring-vaccination that eradicated smallpox.

History is decided and redecided by each generation as it passes and is intimately bound with their perceptions of the present. As we determine history, we are also altering the past, in part by figuring the relative importance of individuals and events. But the past, even if we are not aware of it, is altering the present – events having provided one eventuality and not another in today’s world. And the present also determines the future – so all points on what used to be considered a timeline are always influencing each other.

So as you cross a major timekeeping barrier – like New Year’s Eve – realize that everything you’ve done, indeed, to some degree, everything you are and everything you will do is only partially under your direct control – that the past and the future are also in play. Relax, have fun and have a Happy New Year! (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

Traveling in Time

Village Dancer

This boy – this glorious boy – followed me through the southern Bangladeshi village trailed by a gaggle of children. He was determined to do a traditional dance for me and to get me to photograph him – and his friends said that I would never do it. He trailed me and tapped on my shoulder announcing in simple English that he was going to dance, and that I had to take a picture. Well, how could I resist, right?

So bold a boy with so minor a request. Well the children gathered in a semi circle around us and started a slow clapping as the boy started to lift his legs one by one, partially cross them and slap them – a dance, not too unlike some southern Alpine dances I’ve seen. I started clicking away, my autowinder doing all the work as the tempo of the clapping accelerated until the boy was a blur of flailing arms and legs and the children were a mass of giggles. Then everything came to a sudden halt and the dancer gave me the lovely vogue that I captured for all eternity – or until the paper and chemicals disintegrates and the image is lost forever. But for now, there he is a brave, outgoing and talented boy who – against the predictions of his friends – got the foreign woman to photograph his dance

I look at his photo sometimes and wonder what has become of him. Is he working an oil rig in one of the Gulf States? Did he get an education and move to the city? Did he remain in the same village and is now a married householder with children of his own? Is he still a leader of his peers or has the world crushed that natural ability to fit a more docile mold? How has time ravaged that strong body and that smooth skin? Where have the tides of life taken him?

TR over on his site From the Faraway . . . Nearby recently posted a beautiful piece entitled, “Not Today”. I urge you all to read it and really think about it. Superficially, it’s about a day of travels in which none of the planned destinations or sites are seen. A deeper read reveals all of the unplanned things that happened instead. I was left reading that homage to life’s empty space thinking, “So this then is life . . . How curious, how real,” and feeling rather transcendental as I did.

Sometimes I realize how far I’ve traveled from my own home port and wonder how my life became so unmoored. So many people I meet seem so determined and goal oriented. I have for the most part, let the fates dictate my path and yes, I’ve been buffeted quite a few times as a result of that choice. But, you know, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the journey has been fantastic and the current destination is – pretty darn good.

More than 20 years ago, I, along with some friends, pranced around naked in the fountain after midnight at the Busch-Reisinger Museum: a bunch of kids on their way back from a night at the Plow and Stars – a pretty standard prank for Saturday night in a college town. But today, I look different, I feel different, I think differently; I emote differently . . . so am I really still the same person? Generally, such changes are simply attributed to a growing maturity that is so delayed in the western world, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to think of those changes as a change in identity instead. Perhaps that is a better way to think of our past selves anyway – not as part of a continuum, but rather as discrete individuals somehow related to each other – that way each self can be fully appreciated, understood and perhaps reintegrated someday.

When we reflect on the past or go through old photographs we become, in a way, time travelers. So many frozen moments, so many images of people locked unchanging in the prison of our minds. Smile at the sepia-toned face of an old lover and remember his touch. He has probably changed as much as you have – and yet for you, he is forever 25.

Rembrant: Three Self Portraits

Consider for a moment the changes brought by the passage of time to an artist who recorded the events – like Rembrandt or Durer. Durer realized that he was creating his own immortality and never painted or drew a full portrait of himself after the age of 28 – preferring instead to cast himself as a character in one of his great woodblock prints or etchings. Rembrandt, on the other hand, was ahead of his time, and recorded more than 40 years of his life in a series of self portraits – some simple emotional studies, but a few true contemplative works that portray not only his physical characteristics, but his emotional stance as well. Look carefully at the three self-portraits and ask whether the confident, masterly young man would recognize the depressed and unsure old man as a future incarnation of himself if they met in the street.

But aging isn’t all bad – at least that’s what I tell myself despite the creak in my bones in the pre-dawn of the day. In the west we have a tendency to dwell on the physical decrepitude of old age instead of the understanding, tolerance and perspective our minds and characters gain as they grow old. It is the obsession with the physical aspect of our beings that fuels celebrities and those in the public eye to ever greater acts of self-mutilation in an effort to remain young looking. It would do as all well, especially as developed country demographics tilt in favor of aging populations, to stop dwelling on the crow’s feet and wrinkles of our aging physiques and focus instead on the positive things that aging brings. Once upon a yesterday, older people were considered wiser and were consulted on issues of politics and strategy before they were enacted so that their historical and personal knowledge and experiences could be factored into plans.

In a rather innovative private art class, my elementary-school age daughter is making a Joseph Cornell box of her favorite things. It’s a mixed media piece and when complete, it will contain photographs, objects and drawings to represent the things she now thinks are important enough to put inside. As disheveled as it may become over the years, and no matter how many times it gets thrown in the trash, I am going to try to preserve it for her so she can look back at this self of hers when she has become someone else in time. We all expect great things from her. When asked recently by her teacher, “If you could be anyone in history – anyone at all – who would you be?” With her characteristic easy, self confidence, my daughter answered, “Me”. And I, as the proud mother of such a daughter, smile widely at the unruly student I was when we pass each other in the street headed in opposite directions. (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley).