Father’s Paintbrush

My father’s hobby was painting. You’ve probably never heard of him because he never became known. He never sold anything.

When I was a very young boy I often watched Father standing before his easel on our green lawn, painting ordinary scenes from our backyard. It’s one of the few things from my early childhood I still remember.

He’d paint the old oak tree with its rope swing. Or the hibiscus bush with its flaming red flowers tangled in the dirty white fence. Or that small birdbath at the center of our lawn.

His act of painting had seemed magic to me. I remember how I’d look up to watch him paint a cat on the fence, and then he’d smile down at me and point to the fence. There was the cat!

I’d watch him paint a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky. And he’d point to a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky!

His paintbrush, to me, was a magician’s wand that created the wonders all around me. His brush created sudden tiny flowers in the grass and shining golden leaves. It materialized an entire bright world. When you’re very young, you believe anything.

His finished paintings were hung in a corner of our garage until the dim garage resembled a dusky art gallery, crammed with oak trees and red flowers and birdbaths and mysterious cats and clouds that resembled many things. When the big garage door opened it seemed as if the sun had just risen: and there in new light were those moments of magic, framed by hanging garden tools!

I remember something else. When my father painted, I’d beg that he summon impossible things. I wanted his magic paintbrush to create an elephant in our backyard. Or a dinosaur. Or a castle. A spaceship popping onto our lawn would be so amazing! But, no, he explained, he didn’t know how to paint those things. It was a big disappointment to my credulous mind that a shiny silver spaceship would never pop into our backyard.

Of course, the day came when I learned paintbrushes aren’t magic. That was the day I ran outside and stopped beside my father and saw that he was painting a strange man. The strange man stood mysteriously on the green lawn, between the oak tree and birdbath. I was confused. I looked from the painting to the lawn and nobody was there. Just grass.

The man painted on the canvas resembled nobody I knew. To me it seemed as though Father had summoned a stranger into our backyard, but the stranger had not come yet. I stared at the painting feeling disappointed. Perhaps the strange person would leap over the dirty white fence at any moment and stand before us.

Obviously, it didn’t happen.

That painting like all the others ended up in our garage, and so did the strange man, standing between the oak tree and bird bath and the hanging garden tools. That my father’s paintbrush wasn’t magic after all saddened me for a day or two, but I soon was laughing. Paintings are nothing but paintings.

As you grow older you discover the truth. You learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality.

You understand there is no magic. And you become embarrassed about silly things you actually believed as a child.

After my father died, my wife and I returned to the old house. We inventoried the clutter in the old bedrooms, the kitchen, dining room and family room. I lifted open the big garage door and there in that new dawn of light were all the paintings exactly as I remembered them: oak tree, small birdbath, cat, clouds.

Gazing at scenes that had been rendered by Father years and years ago, I wondered if anything I faintly remembered had been real. Had that cat really been sitting on our fence or had I merely imagined it? Had there been a cloud of that particular shape in the sky?

My wife, standing beside me, suddenly pointed at one painting just above eye level.

She put her hands to her mouth. “Oh my God!”

It was the painting of the strange adult man standing on our lawn. The man appeared exactly like me.

The Wheel

The potter sat before a turning wheel making a bowl . . . or a vase.

The potter’s hands expertly manipulated the spinning clay. Several visitors stood watching. It was a late Sunday afternoon at the Artist Collective.

I looked up at the many glazed ceramics on nearby shelves. My eyes took in row upon row of shining bowls and vases and cups and plates, in every possible shape, each and every one beautiful.

I observed the artist. “How do you know when you’re done?” I asked.

The potter laughed and shook her head. “Good question!”

The wheel kept turning as the potter’s hands compelled her creation. The clay suddenly grew tall like a tower, then expanded outward like an opening flower.

The spinning thing bulged, narrowed, ripples appeared, were smoothed away. Like soft skin touched with a finger.

Something organic emerged from the potter’s clay-covered hands, developed shoulders, a neck, a lip. Perhaps it was a vase.

The potter removed her dripping hands to examine the whirling creation. It was not quite born, suspended in space. She changed the posture of her fingers and the clay resumed its undulations.

The eyes of the artist seemed never satisfied.

The creation spun through endless permutations of beauty, and I didn’t understand how one curve would be considered more beautiful than another. There was an infinity at the center of the wheel: a door to a place of transcendent possibility: the eternal dream from which all things spring.

But only one fleeting vision would be subjected to fire.

The wheel stopped.

The potter thrust her clay-covered hands into the air, as if in surrender or triumph. “Done!”

Aviary Observations

The captive birds in the walk-through aviary had nowhere to go, so they perched on branches and observed the humans.

“These creatures are very selfish,” commented the purple honeycreeper. “Watch them as they crowd outside our enclosure. Every human is anxious to get in here first, but they don’t want to appear like ordinary animals. They measure distances from the corners of their eyes, then shift and shuffle and angle. For an intelligent species they are very squirrelly.”

“But why are all these humans in such a big hurry to get in here?” asked the blue-necked tanager.

“Because they want to exult in the little things they have caged. Then they want to feel relief when they step out of the cage.”

“If they want to feel relief, why do they hesitate to leave?”

“Because it turns out we are beautiful.”

“But if they prefer to be free, why won’t they let us be free?”

“Because our beauty would escape them.”

Soul to Soul

Rudy and I stood talking at the end of the line as we waited for a concert. Rudy calls himself a philosopher, but don’t ask me whether he is.

“You know,” Rudy was expounding, “if existence is defined as the opposite of nonexistence, and nonexistence is something that doesn’t exist, your existence is defined by something that doesn’t exist.”

“That sounds profound,” I said.

“Don’t you realize your very existence is in question? Doesn’t that bother you?” inquired Rudy.

“Not really.”

A strange someone sauntered up to the end of the line. The guy wore rainbow sunglasses, a green bow tie, flower trunks, and a cascade of gold chains that couldn’t possibly be real. His t-shirt was emblazoned with a photograph of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue.

“Peace to you fellow Earthlings!” the strange someone proclaimed.

“Peace to you!” replied Rudy with his usual wry smile. He eyed Einstein up and down.

“Brave the unity and go soul to soul!” Einstein said. “The transcendent antenna beyond the multiverse electrifies, intensifies, rectifies! Be the incorruptible hunger that skewers the night and opens shutters to the Light! In that galaxy and time far, far away, enigmas await so fire up your starship! Let your rocket burn! Embrace the One like collisions of hot ectoplasm! We are the Alpha and the Omega and a billion furnaces roaring! We are the Omega Men!”

“Wow,” exclaimed Rudy. “That was completely rational.”

I corrected Rudy. “That was poetry.”

“That was one toke too many,” commented Rudy.

“That was something truly profound that you couldn’t possibly understand,” I replied.

Einstein stared at me through his rainbow sunglasses. He actually seemed to be surprised. “Yeah man, like he said.”

The Silent Woman

Those who sought the heart of the library had to pass a granite statue. The Silent Woman stood a few feet inside the entrance to the Reading Room. The gray Silent Woman had been sculpted by a famous artist. Her bowed head was wrapped in a carven scarf. Her eyes were down and closed.

In a dim corner of the Reading Room I took off my winter coat and settled into a plush armchair. Wooden shelves heavy with gilt-lettered books enclosed the silence, like the walls of a cathedral. My seat faced one side of the Silent Woman.

I opened a book. For an hour I read. Then I shut the book. The dry pages seemed unimportant. Small voices from the nearby Children’s Room had tiptoed up to me.

I listened to the little voices.

Like a bubbling stream of soft, musical notes, the voices pattered and splashed and giggled. They chimed like crystal water cascading over stones. From the Children’s Room I heard glee, excitement, surprise . . . softly running feet . . . a sudden cry of delight. I heard the joy of eager spirits that refuse to sit.

I tried to understand the indistinct voices that swelled from a knowledge of life’s immediate fullness.

As I listened to the happy voices, I lifted my eyes to the Silent Woman.

Her head was bowed. Her eyes were closed.

She seemed to be waiting.

The Star Maker

I saw a strange thing lying among litter on the sidewalk. It was a three-dimensional star, about five inches tall, made of white paper. I picked it up, examined it.

The origami star was composed of many sheets of lined notepaper, folded perfectly together by a patient hand. Sprinkled upon the star were jumbled words and phrases from torn pages.

I took the origami star up to my office on the twenty sixth floor. I looked down through my window at the tiny sidewalk where I found the fallen star. Far below people flowed in a thin trickle.

I hung the paper star on a bare spot above my desk.

Nearly every day I looked up at it.

Over many days, weeks, months that perfect origami star composed of jumbled words and perfect folds took on for me special significance. It seemed to represent my own bewildering life. Many pages, one after another, removed by time, but carefully retained. It was a hopeful reminder that with effort, precision and devotion a miracle could be folded together. A star might coalesce and take form.

When I gazed at that strange star, the essence of my own dreams seemed to shine forth.

One day I rode home on the train, thinking about a troubling day at work. As the train halted at a station, I gazed out the window and saw a destitute man sitting on a bench wrapped in a dirty blanket. His head was bowed.

He was concentrating very hard, folding an origami star.

Climbing Higher

Night.

A dark mountain meadow.

The moon like a bright coin.

A thief moved across the ghostly meadow, melted into black pines.

Roy’s fingers searched the trunk of a tree and discovered a handhold. Blindly he lifted himself onto the lowest branch. Bending his legs, struggling to keep balance, he raised himself into space.

With one greedy hand he reached up again and groped. His fingers closed upon another branch. His muscles lifted.

Secretly he climbed.

A cold mountain wind whirled from the deepest corners of the night, lashing Roy’s upturned face. He fought unseen limbs as gusts swayed the tree. Black needles raked his arms like skeletons caressing.

A higher, more tenuous, more difficult branch.

An icy wind.

A few winking stars shivered through the ever thinning branches. Roy reached up greedily and grabbed hold of another branch, climbed higher, even higher. A careful thief, he climbed higher, higher, into multiplied stars, until the Earth spun a quarter million miles below.

One last branch.

He thrust his head above it.

A bright coin.

Roy collected the moon and put it in his pocket.

One Word

As I stood at the corner of a busy intersection waiting for a green light, I noticed a man with a horrific beard sitting half-naked on the sidewalk. His fist gripped a magic marker and he was writing prolifically on a rectangle of cardboard.

From my distance I couldn’t read what the man had written. I did observe he was creating the enormous word GOD. He was broadening the lines of GOD with precise attention. Working carefully, very deliberately. Like a true artist.

Making GOD bold. Preparing for his daily appeal.

My eyes were drawn to the earthy arms, earthy legs, blackened feet in broken sandals.

As I waited to cross the intersection, a clean-shaven man wearing khaki shorts came up to the writing man and stared down with a smile.

Just as the light turned, the man looking down burst out laughing.

“GOD!” one roared.

Handling a Harpoon

The student doodled, wondered why a whale would be white, made a note in the book’s margin, underlined a sentence.

His pen descended again but couldn’t harpoon words. The elusive whale submerged into unseen pages.

The young man slammed the book shut and jammed it into his heavy backpack. He slung the bundled freight over one shoulder and rose from the desk.

The white whale moved, too.

It swam inside inky darkness, from one book to another.

It moved through Physics, Biology, Sociology, Philosophy, Religion, Statistics, History. It migrated from ocean to ocean.

The student quickly navigated to his next classroom. Thinking of nothing. Thinking of everything. Suddenly he felt the whale slip into his bent back, shiver up his spine, then a whirl of awful whiteness in his head.

Anxiously he sought a harpoon.

But the whale swam away.

The Taste of Flies

A child raced out of the kitchen’s back door before bacon and eggs were ready and hid under a branch of the old acacia tree.

The child caught sight of a shining web. Diamonds of dew glittered before surprised eyes like a bright, luring treasure.

A curious hand reached out.

“Please don’t break my web,” said the spider. “It took me an awfully long time to make.”

“Hello,” said the child.

“Shouldn’t you be eating your breakfast right about now?” asked the spider. “Why did you come running outside like some sort of crazy person?”

“I don’t know.”

“That can be very dangerous. Just because a door is cracked open doesn’t mean a body should rush through it.”

“Sorry.”

“I can’t help but notice you admiring my spectacular feat of aerial engineering. Isn’t it amazing? Are you curious how long it took me to create this miracle?”

“Why did you make that?”

“Good one!” laughed the spider. “It’s what I do. It’s what all spiders do. We knit our silk into a perfect geometric pattern and weave a beautiful trap.

“What you see is my tangible essence. My daily masterpiece spun from insatiable instinct.

“It’s my Sistine Chapel, my Starry Night, my Water Lilies. It’s my Persistence of Memory, my Guernica, my Night Watch. It’s my Garden of Earthly Delights, my Last Supper, my Mona Lisa. It is my self-portrait.

“It’s the place where I stand. I really can’t help myself. We spiders have to eat, too, like you.”

“What do you eat?” asked the child

“Silly flies that I trap.”

“What does a fly taste like?” the young child asked, suddenly thinking again about breakfast.

The spider laughed ominously. “Bacon and eggs.”

“You’re horrible! You’re nothing but a nasty little spider! What will you do if I break your web so you can’t kill any more flies?” demanded the child.

“I will eat my own miracle and weave again. But you won’t destroy my web because I can see you are exceptionally wise.”

“What does wise mean?”

“It means you speak to tiny things like me.”