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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” – Marcel Proust

This post is dedicated to my daughter who “got” Proust before she was twenty. I couldn’t get much further than the first sentence of “Swann’s Way” the first of seven volumes of “In Search Of Lost Time” (although, in my defence, the sentence was three pages long.)

I didn’t manage to read Proust’s novel(s) in English, let alone French, but with the help of my daughter I am better able than otherwise to enjoy and appreciate his (and her) reflections. As some wit remarked “they would rather visit demented relatives than read Proust”. I understand the sentiment and I am very lucky to have had some of his themes explained to me and discussed in contexts I understand.

Although memory, especially involuntary memory, is the main theme of Proust’s work, it is the idea that if we understand our life experiences and know how they affect us and change us, and we can use those changes to transform ourselves, that has me punching the air saying “yes!”

Now, I didn’t explain that very well, so I was really pleased to find this quote from Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.

I can apply that to so many of my experiences, from the traumatic to the seemingly trivial. And i think I can see how Proust spoke to my daughter. She was four when I damaged my spinal cord, and she adapted her life around whatever I could offer her. (As did my sons, and they too would probably “get” Proust if they ever decided to read his work.)

Some of my real voyages of discovery:

One of the most important lessons I have ever learned was after I lost my mobility – don’t let the things you can’t do stop you from doing the things you can do.

When my twin sons were babies I learnt that housework doesn’t matter. It will always be there, but your babies will grow up. (Or I needed to sleep more than I needed to vacuum.)

I learned that if I walked at the same pace as my toddlers we could all see the caterpillar in the grass.

Teenagers are extraordinarily receptive to exploring all sorts of ideas, from politics to ethics to science … They like to share their discoveries, and I learned to listen.

I learned that dreams come true, but my dream of walking has required determination, persistence and commitment. And creative thinking, by me or by others.

I have lots of art projects on the go all the time. I have learned that this is a good thing because something I read or hear or see adds to my experience and even the most subtle change can enlighten or inspire me to bring something more or different to what I am working on.

Writing focuses and clarifies my thinking, and often helps me look at issues from new perspectives.

I find myself wondering more and more how many opportunities I miss to learn about myself and others. This is not a bad thing. My mind is opening.

By expressing myself in art, no matter how skilled I am, I am translating to another medium an aspect of who I am and what I see. Art makes it easier to have new eyes.

I’ve also learned that those few words defining a real voyage of discovery have provoked me to think carefully about what “having new eyes” really means.

The Real Voyage of Discovery

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“Storytelling is how we survive, when there’s no feed, the story feeds something, it feeds the spirit, the imagination. I can’t imagine life without stories, stories from my parents, my culture. Stories from other people’s parents, their culture. That’s how we learn from each other, it’s the best way. That’s why literature is so important, it connects us heart to heart.”

Alice Walker

Alice Walker, author of  “The Colour Purple”, represents for me more than the literature of the oppressed and the marginalised, more than literature of  social justice, more than literature of a gifted writer. Yes, she has the power to reach across boundaries and to connect with people regardless of nationality, gender, class, ethnicity. Yes, she has the ability to change lives and can influence the way we think about racism.  Yes, she uses literary devices to breathe life into characters and situations.

She has the gifted writer’s ability to draw us into relationships with her characters. She gives us the opportunity reflect on the ethics and values of our community, to empathise with characters from different backgrounds and experiences, to walk a mile in another’s shoes.

Her storytelling has the power to connect many hearts because her storytelling is literature.

Nonetheless, everybody has stories. Everybody needs stories.  “(stories are) … how we learn from each other, it’s the best way.”  Stories tell us who we are, tell much about the community that shaped us.

My son set up this blog for me to encourage me to write. I’m not sure what he thought I would write about. At first I didn’t know what to write about. When I realised that this was an opportunity to tell stories to my grown up children I realised I had an audience, at least one I could address in my head. They can choose to read or not read what I write, but I can share stories with them that otherwise might not be told. I have told stories about my mother and her mother. I have told stories about my travels, stories about our family, what it is like to live with a spinal cord injury, my hopes and dreams, opinions on social or political issues, my interests and thoughts in general. My daughter always clicks “like” when she has read a post “Because”, she told me, ” I want you to know I’ve read it.” That’s when I knew that it’s not only literature that “… connects us heart to heart” but all storytelling, whether it is sharing experiences or thoughts and ideas. When I see that she has read a post I feel a connection.

The storyteller, like the artist or poet makes herself vulnerable  because she reveals something of herself and the background that has moulded her. Opinions can reveal prejudices and introduce conflict. But that is how we learn about each other. Reflections can stir the imagination, expand and inspire ideas. Memories can provoke interest in finding out more about who we are and the forces that given us “identity”.

Using technology anyone can create a social role as a storyteller. We can connect with people on a global scale. I am excited to read something written by a woman who has lived most of her life in Africa and the Middle East. To connect with someone from such a different cultural background and to learn something of her life and yet find we share many concerns and priorities is eye opening.  It is awesome that someone may read my words and connect in some way, and that conversely I will read someone else’s story.

By the way, Alice Walker has a blog. I recommend reading it!

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I am thoroughly enjoying reading Jodie Picoult’s “Handle With Care”. I haven’t finished reading it yet so this is not a book review … And I shouldn’t say this, but after having read three quarters of it, I think it might be her best yet.  Picoult chooses some meaty subjects to write about but sometimes there seems to be something lacking, perhaps in character development, or something contrived. This time she’s seems to have nailed the complexity of  the issue, and the characters are real.

What’s bothering me is the metaphor Picoult uses to suggest that we grow in adversity.  One of her central characters is a baker and baking metaphors are used to introduce each new section of the story.  To paraphrase, a baker punches down the dough between proofing.  ” … in baking, and in life – the cost of growth is always a small act of violence.”

I prefer to compare growing in adversity with the forging of steel. It requires great heat. The imagery of fire and a forge implies sweat, hard work and hammering, but also suggests passion, determination and perseverance.

Punching dough suggests bruising and caving in. Bread suggests something light and airy.

Perhaps we are meant to think that this character is on the brink of giving in, but has the inner strength to carry on, that the cost of being able to persevere is a feeling of being battered and bruised and broken.

Growth should come with a feeling of triumph and victory.  Punching dough implies defeat, giving in, being moulded by someone else. We grow in adversity; the cost may be pain, hurt, struggle, humiliation, but we forge our victories, we transform ourselves under stress. Growing in adversity is the forging of steel.

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So often when I’ve been thinking about something, the universe seems to conspire and that “something” crops up again in another context.

I had been bothered by the realisation that so much  great art and architecture has come at the expense or in the face of great poverty. Not long ago I started reading a biography of Michaelangelo.  He grew up in Florence where the Renaissance was born. Michaelangelo mixed with the scholars, painters, poets and philosophers of the time and admired and respected Lorenzo de’Medici (Lorenzo the Maginificent, the wealthy and influential “ruler” of Florence) who encouraged them. At the same time a Dominican friar, Savonarola, was vehemently preaching against the excesses of Florence and Rome.

The biographer, Bruno Nardini, describes the tension Michaelangelo felt. “As an artist he had no doubts. Art could only be nourished by intelligence and beauty, it could only unfold and flower around the Magnicent (Lorenzo). But as a Christian for whom life is only a moment of trial, he was forced to admit that Savonarola was right, that he was proclaiming against the vanity of all, the sinfulness of any idea that did not lead back to Christ.”

Nardini suggests that Michaelangelo, while continuing to study sculpture, also nurtured his soul through the scriptures and so was able to bridge the beauty of art, and the Christian message.

It had not occurred to me that the gifted creators of superb art might have to reconcile the excesses of their art with their spiritual beliefs.

My awareness of their potential dilemma makes me appreciate their talent and genius all the more.

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Much European art, particularly from earlier centuries, has been created at the behest of the rich and powerful often as propaganda. This raises the question, are we complicit in their manipulations when we admire and glorify these works of art?

Louis fourteenth built his superb palace at Versailles, with the great Hall of Mirrors, the Grand Canal, and the Neptune Statue. He built Triannon for he and his mistress to live in. Marie Antoinette built petit Triannon to was escape the pressures of officialdom, and the hamlet of Austrian style homes, so her children could experience “normal” life, and to assuage her homesickness. These whims were created while the people were starving. Yet we admire the extraordinarily beautiful architecture and the art within without a thought for the historical context, at least not in terms of the ordinary people.

Was it wrong to build these extravagances while the people starved? Would the world be poorer now if we didn’t have the palace of Versailles?

Catherine de Medici had a retrospective of her life created by the great Dutch artist, Rubens. It consists of twenty four huge paintings. It is possibly Ruben’s finest work. Yet Catherine de Medici was guilty of many crimes while she was regent of France. Does this is any way nullify our enjoyment of Ruben’s work? For me it doesn’t. In a perverse way it heightens my appreciation of the allegorical works, and adds another dimension to it. Does that mean I condone her actions?

Florence is a beautiful city, mostly because of the palaces and the buildings. Much of this building took place at the end of the fifteenth century. The government encouraged building by giving tax exemptions for forty years. So who paid the taxes? Probably the poor, who could not afford to build. So the rich were standing on the shoulders of the poor, who were staggering under the weight of their greed. Do we ever stop to think how this great architecture was paid for? How Michaelangelo’s genius work was paid for?

Venice was an egalitarian state at that time. Egalitarian for the rich and noble. The few thousand rich men met to make decisions in the Palace of the Doge. The Doge did not rule, he was a figurehead for these decision makers. But there was no equality for the workers. Who paid for the magnificent palace with it’s superb artwork by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronaze?

The superb art in the churches in both Florence and Venice usually includes figures of the patrons amongst the saints, usually showing the saints’ approval of them. Are we bothered by this propaganda, aimed at the workers?

There is certainly an amorality that can be disturbing. I don’t believe that great art should be nurtured and admired at any cost. But I do believe that knowing the historical context of this great work adds a dimension that increases my appreciation of it. I admire those geniuses.

But let’s not forget the little people.

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How could I have lived this long and not known about about calligrams? I love letters and art, so throw poetry into the mix and voila, there is a thing of such beauty it takes my breath away.

I’ve seen letters cleverly arranged into shapes to create an image that expresses the meaning of the letters or words. Simple, nice. For example,

Letters or words create a visual image of themselves

An image created using related words

But calligram poetry! It’s beautiful:

Apollinaire's Dessin

Apollinaire's Dessin Il Pleut

Apollinaire's Eiffel Tower

Guillaume Apollinaire was a French writer born in Italy in 1880 of Polish parents. He famously wrote a book about calligrams, published in 1918. (Makes me feel really ignorant, having not heard of or seen these wonderful visual poems.) Calligrammes: Poèmes de la paix et de la guerre 1913- 1916 (1918) from An Introduction to Guillaume Apollinaire. He also wrote the children’s books “Madeleine”, which I do know about.

Other beautiful calligrams that I’ve found:
(Click on the title to find out more about the author)

DIAMOND

*
*the*
*diamond*
*on my hand*
*reflecting love*
*stars , dance*
*an endless*
*diamond*
*sky*

Tears

t        a            d
e                       o
a         r             w
r               i           n
s                v
e            a
  s               r
t                              s
r            o             a
e            f                d
a
m            s                 f
i                 o                a
n                  r            c
g                r                e
o
w

(Sometimes it is called concrete poetry – I suppose because the visual element gives a solid dimension – but I don’t like this description at all) This author calls her poem a concrete poem …

‘A gentle breeze … “

Apparently calligram means beautiful writing, and so it is!

I’ve started creating my own calligrams. These can be viewed in My Artwork and Calligrams Where you will find calligrams for love, inspiration, hearts, music, valentines and more …

If you’re interested, the context for these calligrams can be seen in these posts:
The Power of Visual Poetry – Destiny
Calligrams – Visual Poetry here you will find calligrams of hearts, stars, music and more.
A Christmas Calligram
Blood Diamonds

Calligrams for Inspiration

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Edith Piaf sang “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I regret nothing at all, or No, I’m not sorry for anything) with passion, as a personal statement of courage and faith in her future. She sang it, not in desperation, but as an affirmation of hope, of courage and life. The final line she sang is: “Je repars à zero” (I’m starting again from zero).

I have always loved this song, stirred by the conviction and strength with which Piaf sings.  Circumstances, of our own making or out of our control, too easily allow us to  become mired in guilt, regret, and self pity.  Yet Piaf rose above her tragedies. At the time when Piaf performed this song her health was rapidly failing.  She had gained enormous fame, even infamy, and had many detractors who were highly critical of her lifestyle. Piaf had had a tragic childhood, and after a serious injury had became addicted to alcohol and morphine.  She had been divorced, had lovers, remarried. If you listen to the song in the context of Piaf’s life, the words come to acquire a new dimension of meaning. They become her affirmation of the way in which she lived her life, embracing her choices, mistakes, and whatever life threw at her, good and bad.

No, No Regrets

No! No regrets

No! I will have no regrets

All the things

That went wrong

For at last I have learned to be strong

No! No regrets

No! I will have no regrets

For the grief doesn’t last

It is gone

I’ve forgotten the past

And the memories I had

I no longer desire

Both the good and the bad

I have flung in a fire

All of us make mistakes. Some of us dwell on those events, allowing the regret and the remorse to taint our lives forever. Guilt is destructive, but it takes courage to move on. Someone said “Owning your story is hard, but not as hard as spending your life running from it.”

As a mother I know I have made mistakes nurturing my children. Been impatient, shouted instead of listening, said the wrong thing that has hurt rather than healed, been overwhelmed by tiredness and made poor decisions. As a wife I have put my interests before those of my husband. As a friend I have carelessly let time pass and overlooked opportunities to support. But every day is a new opportunity to start again.

When I injured my spinal cord I spent months in hospital. I was unable to celebrate my sons’ birthday. I was unable to hug my sons and daughter when they were sad or needed a mother’s love. And when I returned home I used all my energy to look after myself, leaving my family to muddle on as best they could. I chose to go skiing that day when I broke my back. It was my choice that impacted on everyone around me. Yet if I had let that guilt consume me, I would have taken even more from them. Sure, I wish  sometimes that things had been different. I’m sure my family wishes that things had been different too. I hope they don’t resent my choices too much. Because that resentment will eat them up.

I don’t resent the decisions made by others that day – the ski instructor who was with me, the manager of the ski field who opened the field in atrocious conditions. I accept the choices I made then, and every day I make new choices … to exercise or not, to talk to friends or not, to write or not, to do something special for someone or not.

Every day is a new day, an opportunity for a new beginning, faith in the future.  Be strong; move forward; have no regrets.

“Je ne regrette rien”

Edith Piaf

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