Moments of Being

“Driftwood,” by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

“I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favorable moods, memories—what one has forgotten—come to the top. Now, if this is so, is it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into a wall; and listen in to the past…I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”

—excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s “Moments of Being,” published as a collection of essays in 1976.

Homer’s painting appeared in 1909, a short time before his death, but is reflective of a lifetime of creativity and artistic acumen. Combined with the quote from Woolf, it inspires contemplation of a much more profound idea concerning the nature of being and the significance of the foundational experiences which lead us to become who we are in our lives.

Currently, I am engaged in exploring a number of the complete works of Virginia Woolf, and recently came across a selection of her essays published in 1976 entitled, “Moments of Being.” This collection of her writings has become an important part of my reading regimen, and has sparked a number of recollections, and inspired some self-examination about my own life experience. Her suggestion in the quote above about a device that one might “plug into a wall,” and “listen in to the past,” struck me as precisely what I have been doing these days, recording my recollections of “strong emotion,” and then listening to them with my audio device as a way of once again “getting attached” to them.

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917

As an additional aid in recalling my own memories, I have been rereading what Woolf described as “A Sketch of the Past,” and sifting again through some of the photographic evidence of my early life, and the practice has stirred my creative juices in some surprising ways. What follows are a few samples of the results that have appeared lately.

In Woolf’s accounts of her memories of her mother, who passed away when she was only thirteen in 1895, she describes moments which struck a chord within me in recollections of my own mother. To me, when I was similarly youthful, my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and even though she was quite attractive in a number of ways, my child-like view of her exceeded any of the other mother’s in my admittedly limited circle.

My mother holding me on the occasion of my christening in 1953

I feel fortunate to have many happy memories of sitting either with her or beside her as she read books to us, or told us stories about her own life growing up. Woolf’s accounts are particularly vivid and have sparked a host of “moments of being” within me.

There are moments in a lifetime, some fleeting and some lasting, which alter us in ways we did not expect or want, but which, nonetheless, result in forward movement toward becoming who we WILL be. We fill in the spaces between those moments, if we are fortunate enough, with a search for who that person might be. If we can recognize that person as who we are, at that time, we might then get to choose our path forward with greater confidence. We don’t always get the chance to make that choice for ourselves, but we do dream of the day when our life’s choices are more frequently founded in this person we have become. It’s not easy, and there are no guarantees, but I believe we must first acknowledge that something is possible, before it ever will be.

In a stroller in 1954

The dynamics of each unique personal relationship has always been a subject of interest for me, especially since I began to explore the nature of human interactions as they relate to our very human spirit. As we make our way through our lives, we probably encounter hundreds of other individuals through our educational and social circles, but normally only a very select few become particularly significant to us in one way or another.

These images of my earlier self along with my parents and siblings are now even more startling, as I begin to contemplate how those early connections set the stage for those which would follow and form as I grew into adulthood.

My father, myself, and my son pictured at age six in first grade

We generally become aware of these connections when proximity permits sufficient opportunity to do so, but proximity alone cannot account for the development of close, personal (and dare I say….spiritual) connections, particularly those which endure across great distance and long years. While there are many different foundations for our unique relationships, and much that is not necessarily self-evident regarding the psychology which supports them, the existence of a powerful personal and emotional affinity for another clearly infers a greater degree of connection not explicable by simple biology, psychology, chemistry or mere chance.

Our current social structure in the Western World has evolved significantly in the last hundred years or so, and we are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of our unique personal relationships as part of a broader and completely natural social adaptation, which has been part and parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.

There have been very few individuals in my life with whom I have felt a clearly powerful and profoundly affective connection as those of my parents and siblings, and even though our individual temporal lives may go in completely different directions, continuing a unique relationship is very important, not just on a personal level, but also as an affirmation of a much more expansive, natural, and spiritual aspect to human nature.

We must expect that when we forge new paths, listen to the beat of our own hearts, and follow what is, for us, the only true choice we can make and remain who we are, there will be those who cannot see what you see, who cannot feel what you feel, and who genuinely could not know life in precisely the same light that you do. Be as gracious as you can be with those who do not share your vision, but do not be persuaded beyond reason and what’s in your own heart and mind.

What I am embarked upon is nothing less than the assignment of a lifetime. These many years I have struggled to maintain the continuity of my family, and to eek out a semblance of a beginning to understanding what it is that makes us uniquely human. The search has taken me to the limits of credulity, tested me more than any temporal challenge whether of my own choosing, or thrust upon me, as has been so often the case lately. There can be no doubt that I have struck upon something of great importance to my stated goal, which is to come to terms with the person I have become.

American Watercolor Exhibit

An extraordinary opportunity to travel to Center City Philadelphia this weekend made it possible to fulfill a longtime wish from my younger days to view in person some of the actual original works of Winslow Homer. As a much younger man, full of optimism and the creative spirit, I had thought to become an artist myself, and had taken many steps to achieve that aim throughout my educational journey. Art classes in grammar school, high school, and college only served to heighten my interest in the great works of art created out in the world, and one of my earliest experiences with admiration for other artists involved Mr. Homer, as his paintings were often used as illustrations for poetry books that I never seemed to be able to avoid reading.

The painting at the top of this page, entitled, “Diamond Shoal,” was created around 1905, and captured my imagination not simply as a work of art, but as an inspiration to imagine sailing in such a circumstance myself, as well as prompting what would become a lifelong interest in watercolor painting. Once it became an interest for me, I began attempting to create my own works, a few of which have illustrated my writings here. I never felt like my own skill approached any sort of level that might warrant attention from the art world, but the inspiration of the many works I encountered along the way never left me.

The image above, also by Winslow Homer, is a prime example of how such paintings not only appealed to me as a work of art, but also gave me an appreciation for the content of artwork that the masters unfailingly produced, which I rarely felt that I could embody in my own work. The painting is called, The Trysting Place,” from around 1875, and it depicts a young woman waiting at an appointed meeting place for what the artist described as “…a tardy lover.” You can almost feel the butterflies in her stomach in anticipation of his arrival, and perhaps even some anxiety that he might not show up at all. She is a lovely young woman, dressed in a deliberate choice by the artist as emblematic of the times, and she seems both vulnerable as she wonders what might be keeping her lover, and yet still also courageous to make the arrangement in the first place. Standing in front of these works, knowing that they are the original work of an artist I have long admired and who is world famous with good cause, was both uplifting and inspiring, even as a much older man today. There were hundreds of works by other artists as well and a few of them were especially notable for me as an enthusiastic patron of the exhibit.

This image was painted by one of the many women artists featured at the exhibit. “Bow Sprit,” from around 1916-1918, is a much more impressionistic rendering than some of the others which caught my eye, and I love how the impressions of the water and the sails and the circumstance are more than sufficient to give the viewer a sense of what the artist saw. I love the sparkling array of colors and the fluid movement suggested by her skilled hands. There were many renderings in the exhibit which had similar effects, but this one stood out for me.

At about the half-way point in the journey through these amazing images, there was a section of Winslow Homer works, paired with similar subjects and renderings by another master of watercolor, John Singer Sargent. Both artists were members of the American Watercolor Society in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but had remarkably different approaches to their work, and the contrast was both illuminating and interesting to contemplate. Homer seemed most often to be more concerned with precision and including important details in his renderings, and Sargent was much more focused on the impressionistic aspects of his final works, but both achieved a very similar result which delights and inspires.

Included in this array of creativity were two images by Georgia O’Keefe, someone whose work I have always admired, but for which I had never had the opportunity to view in person. The image above was one of the two, both renderings described as “Evening Star,” and this one is “number two.” The description reported the works as “experimental in nature,” both created as an exploration of the medium and of the subject. There was a palpable feeling of connection to the artist for me at that moment, and as with many of the other works displayed, a sense of awe and satisfaction that is very difficult to articulate.

The exhibit is only available in Philadelphia, and only for a few short weeks from March 1st through May 14th. The quality and nature of these paintings are so exquisitely unique, that they are very rarely exhibited due to the harm that results from exposure to light, even the subtle indoor light of the museum. Several of the works had curtains in front of them so as to minimize the amount of exposure the paintings would receive, even during such a short period of time. Going to such lengths to preserve these works is an enormously important factor for future generations, and I walked away from the museum that afternoon enlivened and inspired in a way that is also unfortunately not as frequent as I would like.

Our connection to the artists and the works they produced in the past is a vital link to the very heart of our humanity, and while each of us may not be masters of our chosen creative arts, we each possess the same vital elements within us that connects us to each other and to those who came before us. We are the masters of our own creative spirits, and uniquely qualified to continue to connect to our spiritual and creative sensibilities as only we can.