The Sleeping Beauty

A couple of weeks after my trip to Southeast Asia I found myself yet again in a very different world and a very different experience. Alexandra wanted to meet up on NYC for a mother/daughter arts weekend—how could I say no to that. My sweet girl and art—never a better combination.

For both of us it was a pilgrimage for we were going to see the New York City Ballet perform The Sleeping Beauty. I have loved ballet since I was a small girl but it wasn’t available to me because of religious restrictions. When I became a mother and removed those artificial restrictions I put my daughters in ballet class the moment they were old enough. I was too old to begin ballet but could live vicariously through them—-I’m so glad it worked out for all of us. Alexandra became passionate about ballet and it was her life all through school and beyond. She still takes class regularly and informs me that it is essential for her life and mental wellbeing. She is six feet tall and professional dancing isn’t her career path but instead she just gets to find the joy with none of the pressure.

Over the last few years she has become passionate about the New York City Ballet and follows them like others follow football. She knows the players, the moves, the opponents, the dramas and the choreography. So in February NYCB was performing her number one ballet The Sleeping Beauty. This ballet contains the quintessential elements of ballet in its highest form. The music, costumes, story, dancers, orchestra and audience all come together to experience art at its most refined and inspired.

Tchaikovsky wrote the music to The Sleeping Beauty in 1889 and was first performed in 1890. It has been a touchstone for classical ballet ever since. Along with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty will forever remain a popular and perfect ballet as it is at once pure beauty and mythic story that touches our hearts.  For in the classic fairytale we are reminded that true unconditional love awakens us from our unconscious lives. The NYCB production is choreographed by Peter Martins and is very much in the school of George Balanchine who founded the company. It is this perfect combination of the magnificent score by Tchaikovsky and the unique and truly American style of Balanchine that makes this work iconic and universal. Yet it was over 100 years in the making. Balanchine, a half a century after Tchaikovsky, pioneered a style and technique that matches the music like never before and elevated the art to a new level. It is a unique art form that can change and grow but yet still convey the essence of the original story and music.

Ballet is art expressed with the human body in time and space and this is the essence of this pilgrimage but makes it so different from visiting sacred sites. This is a pilgrimage of Time and ephemeral beauty. It is Time that brings the music and movement together in a refined state. Only in Time does this experience exist, the music and movement are only in the Now, fleeting and yet eternal in the effect on all who participate; dancers, musicians and audience. Alexandra and I were enraptured by the experience and what human beings are able to create. Each perfect movement to the perfect note is a transcendent moment.

Alexandra is the poster child for October 2017 Knoxville Symphony.   This picture from 2011 is just pure joy.

Golden Buddhas

Grand Palace

On our trip to Bangkok, Hamilton was in search of his past and I was in search of the Buddha. I live in a part of the country that is dominated by fundamentalist Christianity and there is little of Buddhism. The idea of being in a country where the Buddha is everywhere and in all things was so very thrilling to my heart. I was going to a land that honored the path of enlightenment, something most Americans haven’t even heard of.

There are over 400 temples in Bangkok and I knew better than to want to see them all but I had a list of some of the most important ones that were accessible from the central part of Bangkok. In the last post I talked about Wat Pho with the enormous reclining Buddha. The next stop on our tour was the Grand Palace, home to the Emerald Buddha.

The king of Thailand died last October after 70 year on the throne—history’s longest reigning monarch. Thailand is currently in a yearlong mourning and everywhere you go and on every street corner is a shrine to the king. The streets are lined with gray and black bunting. The Grand Palace is the ceremonial and administration center of Thailand but it is also holds the spiritual icon of the land, the Emerald Buddha. Everyday of this year of mourning up to 20,000 Thais, all dressed in formal black clothes, come to the Palace to pay their respects to the king. Many wear a rhinestone pin of the number 9 in Thai for Rama IX their deceased king.

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The palace grounds are extensive and there are many beautiful buildings and statues, some Thai but also some with the influence of western architecture. In the ubusot, the most holy building, built by Rama I in 1782, the Emerald Buddha sits high on a golden alter. It is 19 inch wide and 26 inches tall and made of jasper. Three times a year the king comes and changes the clothes on this Buddha depending on the season. This Buddha represents the heart and soul of the country. As in all Buddhist temples, I took off my shoes and quietly entered this holy place. Pictures are not allowed and there was a special place in front for the Thais to kneel; visitors had a different spot. It was crowded and the Buddha seemed distant and small on his golden throne. I just stood quietly and was grateful for the opportunity to be at this special place.

The last two days in Thailand were not with a tour group. Instead we had a driver to take us to see the places Hamilton lived and loved as a boy. We saw the hospital where his father worked and the compound where they lived, he was even able to find the old apartments and we were invited in to see one of them—it hadn’t changed in 50 years. We went to the snake farm to see the king cobras be milked for their venom. Needless to say these were angry snakes and it took four men to control them, but it was a place he loved to visit as a boy—definitely a boy thing

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It was my turn to choose our next stops and of course I was in search of golden Buddhas and I wasn’t disappointed for on the edge of Chinatown is Wat Traimit and the ultimate golden Buddha, 5.5 tons of solid gold serenity. We climbed up several flights of steps to the top of the temple where this most valuable sacred object in the world resides. It wasn’t until 1955 that a large plaster Buddha was dropped while moving and a crack revealed the true nature of this Buddha. It had been hidden from thieves for centuries.

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We also visited Wat Benchamabophit, the marble temple. In the court yard surrounding the ubusot are 52 Buddhas showing different positions and historic styles.

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The next day we went to the Golden Mount, the highest point in Bangkok and neighboring temple, Wat Saket. The Golden Mount was made from the dirt dug from the canals and had winding stairs to the top where a stupa is said to hold some of the ashes of the Buddha. A monk chanted blessings over a loud speaker and there were the usual lotus and incense for sale to use as offerings. I rang a series of temple bells as I made my way to the top. In Wat Saket there is a 30 foot tall golden walking Buddha. Around the edges of the temple were clips holding ribbons of money. I realized that they were for upcoming Chinese New Year so I stapled my 20 Bhat note to the ribbon under the sign of the dragon—my sign—I’m pretty sure this will bring me good luck –-figured it couldn’t hurt.

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On to my final golden temple, Wat Suthat, we were getting to the less touristy temples so were the only westerners wandering the grounds. Two temples with magnificently painted walls were an oasis in the busy city. The high walls and ceilings were covered with stories and scenes of the Buddha’s life; it was like the Sistine Chapel of Thailand. In the second temple the monks were setting up chairs for a ceremony. I was sorry to be leaving the next day but so grateful for my journey to the land of the golden Buddha. For my last temple I made a donation for a lotus. I wanted this to me my last act of this sacred journey. I placed the lotus on the alter outside the temple and thanked the Buddha for his serene and holy presence.

Wat Suthat

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Graduation

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A couple of years ago I wrote about my Caroline and her unique journey through life. Last week we had the big day, one we had both anticipated for a long time—graduation. You will have to forgive me as my parental ego goes a little out of control for a moment. It was a happy day for it meant a culmination of years of hard, challenging work. Caroline’s time in school is like an epic quest, the heroine’s journey.

My other daughter Alexandra, by contrast. had perfect college career. If her time in college was like a journey, it could be characterized as a gentle sail around the Caribbean. She had her trip planned perfectly and she sailed from island to island gaining experiences and friends. She had blissful summers in Europe, perfect internships in LA and NYC and gently sailed into harbor of graduation on time with her dream job awaiting her. She worked hard and made the most of every minute of her education—-ahh, bliss.

Caroline’s college career would be like an early circumnavigation of the globe. Nobody quite knew where she was going or if she would fall off the edge of the world. First she spent some years in the small seas getting her bearings as a wandering art student in a community college. She then decided she was ready for open ocean at the University of Tennessee. There, she was met with the greater challenges of a large university, rough waves and sea monsters around every corner; she had a lot to navigate. Then she got caught in a doozy of a storm (literally) and changed course choosing the hardest route possible, math and physics. She had the piece of paper saying she was smart enough but would she have the emotional stamina to conquer years of difficult classes? She hung in there through thick and thin, around and through classes with names us mere mortals can’t even pronounce, much less read the text books in an alien language. Each challenge made her more passionate about math and science and more determined to make it to home port with the golden sheepskin. Even the last few months, the sharp coral reefs of lost friends and beloved professor threatened to sink her ship but she stayed strong and made it into the harbor victorious. She arrived battered and beaten but had discovered new worlds and her life was forever changed.

So what is next for my brave explorer? Well, as usual she is charting her own course through life. She is combining her love of math, science and art into one unique and delightful path. Caroline is creating works of art out of math functions to display the beauty of the language of our Universe. Stay tuned for new discoveries of previously unknown universes. She shares a birthday with Galileo, how fitting.

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within.—-   Galileo Galilei

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PhysCon 2016

The Huntington

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I had visited Southern California once as a teenager and a few times in my early 20’s but it really wasn’t a place that called me. It is too populated and large and the glamour of Hollywood really wasn’t my thing. But now that Alexandra lives in Santa Monica, trips to California will be a regular part of my life. When I mentioned I was on my way to LA, everyone asked if I was going to Disney or Universal, I’m saving those places to enjoy when I have grandchildren but that is many years from now, I’d say around 2032. So in the meantime, I went searching for a place to feed my soul now. I’m happy to say I found a little piece of heaven on earth in the middle of the enormous urban sprawl.

Huntington Gardens and Library combines all my favorite things in one spectacularly magical place: extensive gardens, huge library, art galleries and a beautiful mansion. Really, everything in one amazing package. It was a clear, cool day in March and my precious girl was with me, the day was going to be perfect.

We started along the path and meandered by the buildings to the Shakespeare garden that was in full bloom with purple and white delphiniums. The tall flowers had every conceivable version of purple, lavender and white with a touch of blue. Alexandra’s favorite part was a vast lawn with tall classical statues lining the edges with a final view of the stunning mountains.

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Next to the delphiniums was the rose garden in full bloom, with its intoxicating smell. The large beds featuring hundreds of different breeds of roses with their fun names and unique colors, every color of the rainbow was there and some colors I didn’t know existed.

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We passed through the arches of climbing roses into the next level of heaven, the Japanese garden. The path wound past the Spirit House with a big bell and down into a small koi pond with a classic Japanese curved bridge. We walked up to the walled garden containing dozens of bonsai, miniature trees I had no idea could be miniaturized. The path lead to the Chinese garden with pagodas surrounding a peaceful lake.

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Our hearts and minds were full but it was lunch time and we wanted to see the library rested and fueled up. The library has a large room filled with rare manuscripts, from a Gutenberg Bible and Chaucer to Thoreau and Twain. It is so exciting to see the writing of people who changed the world with their words, ideas and stories.

The large mansion has an extensive European art collection. The most famous paintings are Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Lawrence’s Pinkie. These large paintings are on either end of a gallery of other large portraits, each one a masterpiece. On to the next building with the American art. I loved the Mary Cassatt of the mother and rosy-cheeked daughter cuddling on the bed, and the Hopper of the sailboat peacefully sailing along the shore.

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Alexandra and I had the time and energy for one more garden, so off to the desert garden, a world we had never entered before. We didn’t know if we were on another planet or had entered a Dr. Seuss book. The plants had unique shapes, colors and patterns, none of the leafy, flowery abundance of our world but a strange beauty of odd confined shapes and prickles. A few acres of this alien world satisfied our curiosity and we headed to the ice cream shop to share a gelato

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I plan on many more visits to the Huntington Gardens, each trip will have new things to see and memories to enjoy, but most of all, I will be with my precious girl soaking up the beauty of our amazing world full of flowers, trees, art and words.

http://www.huntington.org

The Magic Flute

 

It was time for a change. For many years my holiday celebrations always included Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. I’ve seen them both many times. When I hear the Nutcracker music I can practically dance the choreography. I can now quote whole passages from A Christmas Carol. So instead of The Nutcracker I spent a delightful afternoon watching a very fanciful version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute thanks to the Metropolitan Opera in HD broadcast. Next week I’m going to see The Sound of Music performed by a touring Broadway company. Neither of these productions you would call Christmasy but I like them and they are joyful and fun.

I’ve loved opera for many years now and I go to the Metropolitan Opera HD live broadcasts regularly. http://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/ It is kind of a hobby that doesn’t take up room in my house. I also get to see operas that aren’t possible for our local opera to stage. Opera takes all of the arts and combines them into one amazing expression of the human condition. The talent and dedication it takes to stage an opera combine with the genius of the composer, making it a brilliant presentation of our highest potential. OK, I know in grand opera the heroine must die in the end. That is the rule but fortunately there are happy of operas like The Magic Flute. No Kleenex needed for the final scene.

The music of The Magic Flute is spectacular, the sets and staging in the Met’s current production are phantasmagorical. There are some of the most famous arias in all of opera. But here is what makes it so fun for us pilgrims: it is an Egyptian initiation opera, I bet you didn’t see that coming. I was so shocked the first time I found out many years ago. Mozart was a Freemason and he put many of the ideals and symbolism of Masonry into his work.

First there is the clash between light and dark, the Queen of the Night and the High Priest Sarastro represent this polarity. It is hard for the hero and heroine, Tamino and Pamina to even find out who is telling the truth. Ultimately they end up in the Temple of the High Priest where he prays to Isis and Osiris to protect them on their journey through fire (courage) and water (endurance) initiations to make them worthy of love. Three spirits guide them on this journey advising them to be patient and courageous in the quest for truth and love. The magic flute that Tamino is gifted by Sarastro helps guide him and keeps him in harmony with his quest. In the end truth and love prevail and the Queen of the Night is conquered.

The delightful bird catcher Papagano is Tamino’s sidekick through the story and represents our more sensual nature. Papagano is not so interested in Truth and Virtue, in fact he has a bit of trouble with embellishing his story. He is preoccupied with food and finding a cute lady bird catcher. Sarastro gifts him magic bells to help harmonize him with his more earthly destiny. Papagano finds his ideal partner in Papagana and they plan their life together which includes lots of little chicks.

Truth, love, virtue and perseverance are all essential tools our magical characters need for their journey, the same essential tools for our initiation to a life dedicated to our sacred path. The magic flute and bells reminds us that we need to harmonize yourself with these ideals and that will keep us on the path that is taking us to our more enlightened selves.

 

 

Light Pink Marble

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Lincoln Memorial

This last week I was back in Washington DC.  Alexandra wanted to go to a graduate school seminar so she talked me into a road trip to one of our favorite cities.   It is an easy and beautiful drive up Interstate 81 and we stayed with my cousin in her townhouse which has a view of the Capitol.   Since we were just in DC last summer (you can read about our visit here) we didn’t have a big agenda, just a chance to relax and revisit our favorite sites.

The Washington Monument is repaired and open again after suffering earthquake damage so we started our tour there. As we stood next to this grand momument, encircled with flags we could see the World War II memorial , the reflecting pool and then finally the Lincoln Memorial.  So our next stop was to rent bicycles and have a leisurely ride down to visit Lincoln.  He was a great spiritual master; some even say an avatar, who came to make changes in our world when humanity desperately needed to change.  With few words but great presence he got the job done and his country moved toward having greater equality for everyone.   It has taken awhile, we aren’t totally there but Lincoln definitely began to right a great wrong.

I’ve been to DC many times but have never been to the Jefferson Memorial so that was the next stop.     Last year I visited Thomas Jefferson’s library in the Library of Congress and have been to his home, Monticello, many times.   My first mystical experience was standing on his land and ever since I’ve had a special admiration for this great man.    Like Lincoln he was a great spiritual master.   He changed the world with the Declaration on Independence which he wrote in one night at age 33 a sure sign it was divine inspiration.

I happily turned in my bike, I’m a walker not a biker, and we headed to The National Gallery of Art which is right next to the Natural History Museum.   Alexandra loves Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life, four large paintings depicting a man in a boat with an angel facing life’s lessons.    I love everything  there and it brings back happy memories of many visits when I was a child.   My father is an amateur painter so all vacations revolved around visiting art museums. Currently there is a special exhibit of paintings by Andrew Wyeth, one of America’s greatest artists.  His prints hung in the living room of my childhood home and I’m particularly drawn to his stark and yet detailed style.   It was a poignant moment for me because the first room was paintings of the Olson Farm.   Here I was in a room surrounded by the words “Olson Farm” when all summer my life has been taken up by the fate of my family’s farm, the Olson Farm in Minnesota, handed down in my family for the last 117 years.

The rest of my time I spent wandering the galleries seeing the paintings I know and love so well until I found myself in the central dome with Mercury also known as the great Egyptian god Thoth (read my post on Thoth here).   Standing on a giant green marble fountain, shaped like a chalice, Mercury is holding a caduceus in one hand and pointing to heaven with the other. I asked Mercury for help and to protect the land that Carl Olson and six generations have loved so much.

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The next road over from where I live is called Light Pink, such a strange name but is my everyday connection to the National Gallery of Art.   On Light Pink Road was the quarry where the pink marble that   built the National Gallery of Art was cut.  The crystalline stone from my little part of the world is now a magnificent home for great art presided over by our very own Mercury.