The Block

Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now.

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
François Auguste René Rodin’s Le Penseur (The Thinker) at the Musée Rodin in Paris.

I sit in a Paris apartment, stymied. While it’s not the dirt-cheap garret apartment that a Lost Generation bohemian would have rented, it’s romantic nonetheless. Hemingway offers me comfort that I can organize my 52-card pickup of thoughts and write a cogent post. Still, I embark on the post without a clear port of call; until now I’d never thought of Papa as an optimist.

As I pense, I’m staring down at 25-30 thought balloons—cryptic words and phrases encapsulated by roughly drawn ovals indiscriminately scrawled on a sheet of plain white paper. A handful of lines—some short and straight, some long and circuitous—connect a subset of the balloons. They are bravely attempting to navigate relationships and sequence. I’m reminded of my track across the ocean earlier this year: at times a dead-on rhumb line towards the destination; at other times, an observer not knowing my goal but watching my wavering daily progress would have had no idea to where I was bound.

If I bear any resemblance to The Thinker, my turbulent thoughts envelope me as Rodin’s The Gates of Hell surround his seminal small-scale Thinker.

Rodin’s The Gates of Hell (La Porte de I’Enfer). The (original) Thinker sits above the doors, pondering it all (center of photo about a quarter of the way down).

Before we visited the Rodin Museum I never realized that the initial incarnation of The Thinker was much smaller and just one element in The Gates of Hell. Rodin decided that the figure itself would be interesting in a monumental size, so he extracted it, enlarged it, and it has become one of the most famous statues in the world.

With my page of scribbles I’m trying to discover an uncharted storyline that simply has to be there. How could it not? I have so much material. While wonderful and unforgettable—Rome, Siena, San Gimignano, Livorno, Pisa, Milan, and finally Paris—I feel we need some punctuation mark in our travels as we catch our breath before invading the British Isles. However, so far my technique isn’t helping. No tale is clawing its way out of the paper and shouting at me. While it’s unfortunate, at least it’s accurate. The plate of bucatini before me is a fair representation my brain’s recesses.

It would be easy to write a breezy travelogue with little text or feeling and lots of pictures, but that feels borderline “Instagram-ish.” Or, I could spin a sailing yarn from the summer, of tragedy narrowly adverted (we have lots of material in that genre). But neither are interesting in the present moment. Perhaps it’s the grandeur of the masterpieces of art and architecture that we’ve experienced that motivates me to contribute to it all in some little way, to convey the emotions of our travels.

Every block of stone has a statue inside of it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

Michelangelo’s Slaves

Perhaps the difference between Michelangelo and me (besides 490 years and a whole lot of talent) is that he had the genius to see the one sculpture in a block of stone (“I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.”), whereas our extensive travels leave me feeling that I’m blinking my way back into consciousness after a fitful sleep of vivid dreams—my vision a blurry abstract canvas of often competing and contradictory thoughts.

To an imaginary observer, the page of words, ovals, and lines before me would be incomprehensible. Unfortunately, to me, the experience of observation isn’t that different. Yes, I can read my own handwriting and I know the stories that underlay each of my my chicken-scratch bubbles, but I’m still not seeing the one sculpture within marble.

The one thing (maybe the only thing) that I’m sure of is that a writing coach would admonish me for sitting down at the loom before I can visualize the finished tapestry. Old-school management guru Steven Covey would put it succinctly, “Begin with the end in mind.”

I was hoping that when I opened the tabla rasa of this blog post, the warp and weft of my thoughts would magically weave cogency—but here we are, the land astern of us is sinking into the ocean and we’re bobbing around aimlessly in a seaworthy boat fully provisioned with material, but the captain has no idea where the ship is bound.

As I ponder and write, I find this blog post wandering towards a still life, where the “subject” of the painting (the fruit on the table) is no longer the subject. It’s merely the prop to allow the artist to experiment with light, color, texture, and perspective. My problem mirrors the still life painter’s problem, neither of us can hide shoddy work behind a scintillating story or scene, the work has to stand on its own…a scary thought.

As I look back at an aging 2022 and search for one unifying thread from the year, from our travels, and for this post—my thoughts keep returning to the shear magnitude of the universe and all within it. While it’s one thing to hop on a redeye in the US, wake up in Europe and take a whirlwind tour of the Pantheon in Rome or the Louvre in Paris, I find it dizzying and humbling to have sailed an ocean and a sea to get here, and now have the luxury of extended time to dig deep. The Atlantic and the Mediterranean is so vast; all the artists and all their art is so vast.

On one hand, an appreciation of magnitude breeds a feeling of insignificance—like gazing at a crystal clear sky while sailing a phosphorescent ocean on a moonless night. I’m a speck, flickering for the briefest instant. What does it matter?

On the other hand, I’m swaddled in the comfort of connectedness. The dust in me and the dust in the stars whose light I am now seeing was created together—we’re all one.

Thousands of miles later—with the Atlantic and Mediterranean astern of us, and comfortably on the dry land of Paris’ Right Bank—I marvel at the Louvre’s collection of 30,000 works in 9 miles of corridors. I can’t help thinking, Why even bother to try to do something artistic? Whatever I contribute will, at best, just become part of the faintest wash of the Milky Way. Still, like the dust in me and the dust in the stars, I’m part of a community trying to make sense of it all, trying to capture the feeling and emotion that is sparked by existing in this time and place.

Pausing on the phrase, “…existing in this time and place.” compels me to add a corollary of gratitude to the maxim of magnitude. If I consider the odds of me being here in this universe at only this time and place, and of having found romantic love for the second time, What are the odds of that lightening sticking twice? How could I ever take that for granted? (But I often do.)

Our apartment is on the 7th floor (in the 16th arrondissement for any curious Francophiles). It faces west and the low November afternoon sun is starting to stream into the balcony windows reminding me that we should start thinking of dinner.

I’m happy. For everything enumerated above and for having plucked a transient feeling, out of a stew of emotions and experiences. Granted it’s not a realist masterpiece (almost photographic in its conveyance of detail). I like to think of it as more impressionistic. Perhaps immediately after reading it doesn’t make much sense—like standing too close to a canvas. I’m hoping that with a little time, and a couple steps back, we can both say “Oh, I see it! There’s a bridge and a pond and some lilies!”

Monet up close.
…and stepping back.
The same scene in a different light.
…and again stepping back.
Sunset from our balcony.

Fair winds and following seas.

PS: Yesterday, I experienced Monet’s Impression, Sunrise in the Marmottan. A special thrill because this painting is the eponym for the Impressionist movement. However, Monet didn’t coin the term, he just offhandedly named the unnamed painting for an exhibition’s catalogue in 1874. Ironically, credit for naming the movement goes to conservative art critic Louis Leroy, who sarcastically borrowed the word for the title of his scathing review “The Exhibition of the Impressionists” (my favorite quote from the review about Monet’s work, “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape!”). The term stuck.

Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.

Just as fascinating, in researching this blog post, I learned that Impression, Sunrise and eight other works were stolen from the Marmottan in 1985, in broad daylight and at gun point. The paintings were recovered five years later in Corsica. Amazing.

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