A heavy burden

“Accomplish but do not boast,
accomplish without show,
accomplish without arrogance.”
Lao Tzu

old trees

A long time ago in China, two monks were traveling in a carriage returning to their monastery. One was an old master with a gentle smile and sparkling eyes. While his hands looked like old pine trees twisted by age, his back was straight and his mind most sharp. The other one was a young monk and his student. While he was in the prime of his youth, unlike his master, he retained a rather stern demeanour and small lines had already started to form between his thin eyebrows.

After many days of travel, they finally reached the village at the foot of the mountain where their monastery was located. It was raining steadily. A large puddle greeted the travelers as they stepped out of the carriage.

A lady dressed in long robes and wearing silk slippers looked upon the puddle. “How can I come down? This is terrible! I will get my clothes and my slippers all dirty!”

Upon seeing her distress, the old monk gently lifted her in his arms and carried her across the puddle to a dry place under a large tree. His legs were all muddied and his sandals and robe soaked. He bowed and smiled at her, both gestures left unrequited.

Still smiling, the old master called upon his student so they may start their long walk up the mountain to the monastery.

They walked in silence. The old monk humming some mantras, listening to the birds and caressing the high grass with his palms.

After some time, the young monk turned to his master, and with deeper than usual lines between his thin eyebrows, told him him:

“This is just terrible! You carried the lady across the puddle, got all muddied and wet, and she never thanked you! How ungrateful of her!”

The old monk replied with a gentle smile: “I stopped carrying the lady hours ago, while it seems you are still carrying her!”

Illustration: “Old Trees,” by Guo Xi (China, ca. 1000–ca. 1090) – Handscroll; ink and colour on silk at the Met NY.

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The inside out envelope

I was reading Hafez early this morning, as I do almost every early morning. Hafez always rattles my being to its core, and this morning again, he did.

The image that came to my mind as I read some of his poems, was the one of an envelope turned inside out.

Not the most poetic image, you may think, but then again it is Hafez who asks us in one of his poems, to avoid using words like flower, rainbow and butterfly, if we really want to move souls. So I will follow his advice, as he certainly knows how to move souls, and will dare use the image of the envelope. Rather mundane, you may say, and yet it works perfectly precisely because it is.

Turning an envelope inside out, no one actually does that. Think about it. When an envelope is used and old, it is generally discarded. And turning it inside out will certainly  make it unusable since it is conceived to remain folded, and put together one way and not the other. Turning an envelope inside out is something one has no reason to do, and actually never does.

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Yet, what I discovered reading Hafez, is that we all should. Because if we turn an envelope inside out, we will discover that it is scribbled with sublime poetry. That as you turn it, gold dust will rise and will make you smile. And that it may, just may, take flight.

This is the stuff of children and a wild imagination you may say. And yet, children do that everyday, doing the unimagined. We are just too stiff and think of ourselves too seriously to even consider turning an envelope inside out.

We can do it now, without waiting for wisdom. We need not be leaning on a staff. We need not be wise. We just need to be simple and daring.

The beautiful thing is that once you turn that envelope inside out, there is no turning it back the way it was. You will not be able to erase the sublime poetry you read, nor return the gold dust into it, nor fold its wings. The envelope will become obsolete, and that is always a good thing when it comes to sealed objects.

Once you do it, your very core will change. And you will be able to let go and embrace all things, in a way you have never been able to in the past. No matter the hours of prayers or meditation, you can only achieve this if you fall joyfully into the simple act of turning things inside out.

Oh such a simple act only Hafez knows how to convey. Look at how many words I have already written… I should be ashamed. So now, I will let you turn that envelope inside out in silence.

One more thing, if I may. About that envelope … you chose what you want it to be. Now I will withdraw.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.

Illustration: A poem of Hafez I wrote inside an envelope. My humble translation from Farsi.

“Oh breeze, my story discreetly – do tell.
In one hundred languages if need be, my heart’s secrets – do tell.
With the ignorant and the bored, stay quiet – do not tell.
If dialogue like shared perfume ensues, then with temperance – do tell.” – Hafez, Rubayat 35.

“Beauty will save the world”

“Beauty will save the world,” declared Prince Myshkin more than 150 years ago. And they called him an idiot! *

Is it really so?

Beauty – is that the answer to all the barbarities that surround us? These days beauty, the one that takes our breath away, seems to have been swept away and in great danger of oblivion. The lack of beauty in political discourses, in media programs, on the streets, in the latest fashion and in children’s toys – why is it so?

Intellectual poverty, forgotten history, the loss of common sense, reductionism, excessive consumption and competition, seem to be our daily bread. Every day requires of a new effort to find the delicate amidst words and attitudes.

Vile behaviour and violence that assail us from the time we get up in the morning, from the plight of the Rohingyas to mass shootings to plastic in the entrails of deep sea creatures; all reduced to cold and ugly statistics, and yet with the uncanny ability to create fear and hate, despite ourselves. I find no beauty here.

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What is beauty?

Beauty is commonly defined as “something” that conforms to the ideal version of aesthetics. Well maybe for the ones too busy to imagine, but for me, beauty is more subtle than this rather arid definition.

Beauty is a feeling that goes beyond objects. It is a gentle smile and the clouds moving along the sky. It is a tender kiss on a cheek wet from tears. It is a silent gesture of compassion amidst the harshest environment. It is the giving of love without asking for anything in return.

And above all else, beauty means respect and dignity. Without these two, there is no beauty no matter what the object may be.

Salvador Mundi

And here I am referring to what prompted me to write these words in the first place: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvador Mundi,” just sold in auction for an indecent 450 million US Dollars.

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Do you think it beautiful?

How can a painting be sold at this price for the pure pleasure of one viewer, when the essence of beauty is precisely the fact that it is shared? (I still have hope that it shall be donated to a museum…)

How respectful is it to pay such a sum of money when 705 million people live in extreme poverty (meaning that their household income is less than 1.90 US Dollars a day), and when an unbelievable 65.6 million people are refugees?

You tell me now if the painting still looks beautiful.

And I will not even delve into the fact that it represents Christ as “Salvador Mundi” (the world’s saviour). Ha! How ironic when I started this text by quoting Myshkin! Rather representative of the absurdity of our times, don’t you think?

Taking care of the hurt

So, to restore some sense and dignity to it all, I will turn to François Cheng, a sage of our times, who wisely wrote:

“In these times of permanent misery, of blind violence, of natural or ecological catastrophes, to talk about beauty could seem incongruous, inconvenient and even provocateur. Almost a scandal. […] Beauty includes the taking care of the hurt of the world, the extreme demand of dignity, of compassion, of a sense of justice, as well as the total opening to universal resonance.” **

So, Prince Myshkin may have been right after all. He may have lost his “common sense” according to his friends, but in my view he did not. Prince Myshkin was smart enough to recognize in beauty the inspiration and the very essence of our intrinsically beautiful, yes, beautiful nature.

Maybe I like to think of myself as a humble version of Prince Myshkin … with, I should insist, absolutely no qualms in being called an idiot. Maybe we should all be, so that we may answer to hate, fear and violence with compassion, and maybe just maybe … save the world one beautiful gesture at a time.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.

References:
* From “The Idiot” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, published in 1864.
** From “Cinq méditations sur la beauté” by François Cheng, published in 2006 – my translation.
Japanese print: “Fukaku Shino Koi” by Kitagawa Utamaro, dated 1793-94 – via The Japan Times.
Oil painting: “Salvador Mundi” attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) – via Christie’s.

A day in Paris

“Mama, what do we do today?”

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We walk. We look at the clouds. Watch leaves falling like books in the air. Old manuscripts. The smell of ink. Dust and sun in our eyes.

The sky immense and blue. “Let’s take a piece and put it in our pockets,” I say, “you know for later when we are far away.”

We watch milk twirl in your first ever decaf cappuccino! On the side, a round crêpe like a full moon, folded to match the clouds.

The metro filled with ants, all heads down. We dance a few steps on the platform as we wait for the train. An old man looks at us, and smiles. Just like the one who plays the violin at the entrance. We listen to his notes.

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Run through empty arches. A man stands by a window, reading a book. Perhaps from the pages we saw flying earlier in the park.

Walk behind pigeons imitating them, back side waddling. Play. Stop. And play some more. And laugh.

Dance along small streets. You are always dancing.

And talk. Talk about a book and Japan and chocolate at the window, starting every sentence with “can I tell you something?” Buildings measured against Tsunami waves, a graffiti on the wall, the lady with a dog at the light, the day you rode your bike for the first time. Intarissable…

Imagination free, the instant takes flight always further and yet always present.

And I answer when I can. My thoughts are too real, too material so I discard them. I decide to join in your blabber and then I see the light and the dust. My eyes now guide me instead of my heavy thoughts. I jump from colours to sensations, just like you!

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Art in gallery windows and the gentle smile of ladies in Chanel. More art. Beautiful art. Time stops as we stroll gently through the empty museum. Now you are glad we woke up so early.

Outside the boulangerie, we spot a small bulldog wondering what he is doing in a dog’s body. Another one closer to the fountain, watches pigeons fly wishing he could join them. Or may be not. It may just be our interpretation.

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A giant advertisement for an anti-winkle cream that promises youth as though the heart could heal so easily, returns me to absurdity. And then I let it go.

And the man looking at the void. A homeless from a far way land who then looks up at you and gives you a generous smile, “I have nothing,” he seems to tell you, “only a smile.” And you answer in kind, and you both smile and hope seems to rise even if ephemeral. “What a nice man,” you tell me as you skip down the boulevard.

And then you stop and come back to me. “I wish the entire world was soft and clean.” And I wish that as well. So I kiss you as we stand in the middle of the pavement. Smiles from others. A soft and clean world, even if for an instant. And I wish for it to expands.

IMG_E1725Éclair au chocolat, the best ever! Everything for you is the best ever at that very moment. I admit though, the ones from La Maison du Chocolat are the best ever!

“This is the best day of my life,” you say as the day ends. Of course it is! You always say that. We should all be saying that.

Harpocrates or the end of innocence

Sometimes one gets it totally wrong and would have preferred staying with one’s own interpretation of art rather than read about it. One negative side of having so much information at one’s finger tip, is perhaps the end of innocence.

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When I saw this statue at the Louvre Museum recently, I smiled. Who would not? A child sitting on the potty with a finger up his nose. I thought then that just like today, Egyptians had a wonderful sense of humour. I wish I had just left it at that and not activated my nerd side.

So who is this child?

His name is Harpocrates (Ἁρποκράτης in Ancient Greek) from the Egyptian Har-Pa-Khrat, the child representation of the great falcon headed god Horus. Horus was of course the son of Isis and Osiris, brother and sister and, husband and wife, supreme deities of Ancient Egypt.

The child does not actually have his finger up his nose; rather, his finger is gently on his lips, symbolising along with unruly hair, childhood according to ancient Egyptian representation. At this point in my research I was still pleased, thinking that indeed there was some poetry and welcomed innocence in this statue, a little like the endearing representations of the child Christ by Italian Renaissance sculptors such as Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Ferrucci, among others.

But then I came upon some more history. Under the leadership of Ptolemy I (IVth -IIIrd c. BCE), general and eventual successor to Alexander The Great (or Alexander The Worst to quote my Persian blooded eight year old son), Harpocrates became the symbol of silence and secrets. The finger on the lips was thus interpreted as an order not to divulge the profound mysteries that had been revealed by the gods, a knowledge only a small elite could know. Harpocrates acquired great popularity and his statues could be seen in many temples across the Greco-Roman world up to the VIth c. AD.

To my dismay, from an innocent child, Harpocrates had become the symbol for secrets and mysteries. I have no qualms about representing silence, but to me silence does not mean keeping secrets, it means serenity. It is in silence that one meditates. It is in silence that words of poetry find their source. And it is in silence that a kiss is given. A far cry, you must admit, from the cult of mysteries that eventually spawned out.

So while I share my findings with you, I will, if I may, retain the innocent image of the little boy sitting on his potty with his finger up his nose. Silence is too much to ask for such a small child, and the keeping of secrets is a matter of grown-ups of which I am not fond at all. Wouldn’t you agree?

Thank you for reading. I hope you are smiling.

Kenza.

Illustration: “Harpocrates on his pot,” Egypt, I c. BCE-III c. AD – Le Louvre, Paris. Traditionally the pot would be filled with water from the Nile as a blessing. 

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