Like a fish out of water...an into the frying pan

While on vacation, I stayed by the shore making sand castles with my son. The transparent water brushing our skin, the soft sand on our feet and the shade of a palm tree over us. Next to us, a british man, his fit body adorned with tattoos, was building sand castles with his daughters. We had not crossed words but they seem like a nice, loving family. Suddenly a flapping sound called our attention. About eight feet away from us and to the left of the British family there was a ten-inch white fish with blue stripes that had been (apparently miraculously) being brought out of the water by the mild waves. The fish was flipping and struggling in the sand. The British man used every inch of his fit body to run towards the fish. In the meantime, a local man who worked at the kayak rentals was running towards the fish from the opposite direction. The local man gets to the fish a few seconds before and the British man is obviously relieved. However, the man grabbed the fish and quickly ran away. The British man opened his arms in disbelief and turned to me. “Why did he do that?” he says with a sweet voice. I didn’t know. The truth was that I was kind of shocked as well. When I first saw the fish out of the water I felt bad for it, seeing it ran out of air. The British man repeated the question and shook his head. Suddenly a colleague of the “fish-stealer” was looking at us with a smile on his face. The British guy repeated the question. The man responded with a huge grin on his face, “he was going to make himself a fish sandwich for lunch.”

The British man looked sad and I was thinking the whole scene looked kind of funny. There is no doubt that everybody approaches every situation from a place that is very personal. Some people want to help, others want to fill a physical need. Some see the value of their altruistic nature and others in seizing the opportunities that life freely presents.

 

A fish that is brought to shore is found by a hungry man. Is that synchronicity? A man whose only present worry is to build a sand castle that makes his daughters happy sees a a fish that is drafted to his feet and the savior in him takes over. Sometimes, we have to choose what to do with the unexpected situations that appear in front of us. Usually, there is no wrong or right answer, only choices. However, there is no doubt that if we want to take action, sometimes it is useful to be the fastest runner because opportunities tend to have a fleeting window of success.

 

When I sat down on the beach chair later I saw the British man retelling the story to his family. He was saying how he tried to be a hero although he failed. Then I thought about the local man enjoying his fried fish in between two pieces of bread, sauce dripping on the sides and I smiled. I imagined the story he would be sharing with his friends about how a fish jumped out of the water and practically onto his plate.


I smiled and I thought on how many times I have been like each of the two men. Many other times I have been like the fish as well. And occasionally, I have discovered that when we relax and pay attention to the world around us, life throws coins of wisdom that look like comedy scenes and some time taste like fried fish by the beach.

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Coincidences

I love how the universe works and never leaves a thread loose....

While I have spent several hours in the studio lately trying to finish my latest painting, I have been going through several audiobooks. Today, half an hour before I had to put the brushes down I decided to start another one, “synchrodestiny” by Depak Chopra. I smiled when ten minutes into it I heard a quote that had appeared on the last chapter of the book I had just finished. Coincidence? Perhaps.


I left in a run to drop my daughter off. I soon realized I had 10 extra minutes before my yoga class and that I could stop by really quick and buy something I needed at a store I love but I haven’t visited in months.

  When I was done, proud of my efficiency, the cashier asked me for my last name, then my name. “Alfonsina,” I said. She stopped and then got away from the computer with watery eyes.

“You won’t believe this, but I don’t even know why your name came up on the system two hours ago. I know it is not the same, but my dad’d name was Alphonsus, and we have been going through several things in my family and I though that was a way for him to tell me he was around. I miss him so much!” she said trembling.


What is most surprising is that I have been thinking about my dad a lot lately too, wishing I could get his advise and ran a few ideas by him and just give him a hug, specially this week because tomorrow is the 13th anniversary since he left. I also left the store with watery eyes but a big smile on my face.


Synchronicities? Maybe. Whatever it is I take it because coincidences today made two girls who miss their dads really happy.

Thanks universe!

 

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Me and my dad a couple of years before he started his brave battle against cancer.

Things that happen in a gym’s locker room

Two young women stormed in the locker room. One of them, a tall girl who is contemplating herself in the mirror, is complaining about having to take her car to the shop among other things. The other one says empathically, “you are not having the best day, aren’t you?” The girl in the mirror turns around, walks to her friend and shares that there is more. She says in a not too shyly voice, “I am cheating.”

What a way to spark everyone’s curiosity!

I needed to get ready so I missed all the juicy details. I spent the next few minutes imagining how their conversation went, who was she cheating with, why, what was she going to do now, etc., until I get distracted by a reflection on my field of vision. A woman had a hairdryer in her hand. She was naked and proud of it. No judgement, I am used to it. We have been together in the sauna many times before and she is always like that, au naturale.

What surprised me was not the hairdryer. She was not drying her hair, she was drying her boobs, for a long time....has she realized she could use a towel? “All that heath,” I am thinking. Then she pointed the dryer to the middle of her chest and left it there at full speed. I was almost ready, and the hairdryer had not moved. Was that some kind of beauty routine I don’t know anything about? Maybe some form of heart chakra stimulation? I made plans to ask Alexa as soon as I got home.


As I was exciting the locker room I realized that was just a reflection of everyday life. So many different stories, so many different customs, so many people coinciding in one place and living parallel lives without talking, without learning any substantial information about each other. Some of those people we see several times a week. And we come and go, anonymously, without altering the space we inhabit. But then, sometimes, we say a word and we incite somebody’s curiosity, we become the reason’s of someone’s research, we become a nice story to share. If only we open our eyes and tune in our ears....

Threading the path to our North Star

There are women whose dream is to have a shoe closet like the one Mr. Big built for Carry Bradshaw: the shoe displays, the lights, an universe of heels and colors and tons of accessories that are more decorative than functional. Although I would not oppose to a closet like that (as long as shoes are arranged by color), there are other places that provoque my soul to vibrate at a much higher frequency.

A bookstore and its sister, the old-book section at a library; an art supply store  with tons of items to play with and create the mountain of work I will never get to actually produce. Lastly, and the strange thing is that this one does not connect with my career choices: a fabric store.

My heart always jumps when I see the rolls of fabric. As a kid in a candy store, the awe accumulates in my stomach and comes out in a sigh. Maybe it is  that sense of not knowing where to start, the physical need to rejoice in the different textures that caress the tips of my fingers, or perhaps the sensation of getting drunk on color overload and creative patterns. My soul gets greedy, I want them all! So like in a labyrinth I get lost comparing all the textiles, imagining what I would do with each of them: beautiful gowns that I don’t have an occasion to wear, summer dresses, swimsuits, handbags, upholstery for that piece of junk I found at a tag sale.

Creative juices are squeezed among the fabric rolls. If I have to come up with a statistic, I would say I usually buy about 40% more fabric than what I need because there is usually an indulgence for a project I might get to do that I wasn’t planning to. The leftovers (or should I say “potential materials for future projects”) go on bins that look more like treasure chests rather than a hoarder’s dump.

What is wrong with that? Everyone likes to collect something. Some people go for tattoos, wooden ducks, crystal clowns, tequila bottles, broken hearts....me? I like fabric.

The problem is I am a terrible seamstress. Well, my ideas are terrific, the execution, not so much. When my first daughter was born, I became a compulsive sawer. I would laid her on my lap to nurse while I was at the sewing machine making her dresses. I don’t know if I ever got baby blues, but if I did I cured it with threads and hems. I am glad nobody ever looked at the inside of those dresses. They were so terrible! What a great lesson on how things are not always what they seem.

Shortly after I realized that I could get her something  as pretty with better seams at half the cost, so the compulsive sewing weaned out naturally.

Lately, I have been indulging again with the excuse of creating the dresses that my models wear for my paintings. It has been an incredible experience. It escalated my connection to each image and has helped me find a narrative that works for me. The quality is questionable. I have beautiful, soft silks stapled and held with duct tape. I am not attached to the final product just to the ideas they inspire. As long as they are kept together while the model is posing, I am content.

That kept me thinking about the things we do because they get us closer to our North Star vs the things that lay in our true North.  What things lift our spirits and what things can only be achieved when our spirits are lifted. I am lucky that I do have tons of distractions that help me find joy: playing music, cooking, sewing, making floral arrangements, exercising, making dirty jokes, among others. The list is ample and varied. I need all of those to have my soul vibrating high, to feel at awe, to find content. None of those, however, fall in the category of my “absolutely-necessary-to-live.” It seems so natural to confuse our pleasurable pastimes with what we want to do with our lives, or rather what we were born to do. Sometimes we confuse our talents or interests with the passions that will not only enlighten our world but help us give back to the world our most elevated self.

Try getting paid by one of your hobbies. Sometimes it works, it gives you temporary joy. But that bliss evaporates quite easy. On the other hand, finding our true North Star, as Martha Beck calls it, feels like arriving home. It  makes us feel like we have traveled the world to realize the journey led us to the place where we feel safe and adventurous at the same time, where we have a warm nest to rest and to come back to when the fly gets long.

If you are lucky enough to have found that safe place, continue your journey. But if you haven’t, then give yourself permission to explore every passion that makes your soul vibrate. Go to the fabric store, visit the bookstore, grab that instrument, finish that puzzle, learn how to tango, memorize the pi digits, write, upgrade your wine palate, run. No time spent doing something we enjoy is wasted. When our souls are vibrating it is so much easier to see the things we need to loose and the things we need to gain in order to get closer to our North Star. When our souls are vibrating, every experience accumulated gets sewn in the quilt of our existence, keeping us warm when we need to and serving as a beautiful magic carpet when the call is to fly away. In our obsessed-with-productivity society, we tend to feel guilty of indulging of life’s smallest pleasures. It seems to me that nothing enhances productivity better than being aligned with the true desires of our souls because who would not want to do more of what we truly love? 

I do need to warn you that some of the things we enjoy to do might look ugly (e.g. the inside stitches of my dresses or plenty of songs in a karaoke bar) but who cares? Did it make us smile broadly and brightly? That is enough then.  That is a good step on the right path. Just make sure to remember that there are things meant to bring joy, there are things meant to bring money, and there are only a very few where we can get both. Learning the difference can save us a lot of time.

Go indulge!!! Nothing is more generous than a satisfied soul! And if  you can go open your closet and grab the fancier shoes, delight on the fabric of your jacket while you hum your favorite tune, the better. Feel the sloppy stitches inside your pocket and smile, you are on for a crazy ride.

 

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 Career miracles happen when you’re so in love with your life that pushing yourself is actually easier than stopping, when you “do without doing.” Joyful activity adds real value to the world, and adding value is the heart and soul of a successful career.

Martha N. Beck, Finding Your Own North Star:

Flexibility vs Balance

About eighteen years ago I went to my first yoga class. At that time, the instructor was a very wise woman in her seventies. She would read very inspiring stories during savasana. One day she made a comment that has stuck with me for years. She said that we are either flexible or have good balance but it is difficult to have both. 

I have since raised the question many times of what I am. Without a doubt I incline more towards flexibility. I am not Elastic Girl, but I do notice that I tend  to be able to stretch more than I would expect was normal for someone with my lack of experience. However I am that student that in more difficult poses always falls.  As I am trying to improve my practice I have been questioning what I could do to at least not fall as much, provoked by a low-key sense of embarrassment and annoyance (the ego, the ego, I know!)

The answer hit me recently while I was on top of my mat. Because I can stretch relatively easy I tend to overreach to a point where the pose is unsustainable for my level of training. The enlightenment moment came when I realize that is no different than what I do in my everyday life. I try to do too much, thinking that I can reach any goal I want, that I can extend time and my energy reserves to utopical levels.  How am I supposed to being able to find the equilibrium in a yoga studio when I am oblivious to what I am doing outside of it? 

When we overstretch, we fall, we get injured. Now, I am not afraid of a little fall. I have done it way too many times and so far I have a perfect record of getting up, sometimes bruised and injured, but I can live with that. The floor is not my enemy, but I do recognize that fearlessness can sometimes takes me into forced recovery time. That is the story that loops in the record of my life. 

Isn’t it time to change that pattern?

The advantage with hyper-flexibility is that it makes it easier to force ourselves out of our comfort zone. It is really useful when we want to adapt to change, when we don’t accept the status quo.  We always want more.  Stability, on the other hand, is about learning to be still regardless of the external forces. It’s being content in our space. In yoga the gift comes when you accept both. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do in our lives?  How do we remain strong and pliable? Resilient and energetic? How do we find the right balance between flexibility and well…balance itself?

Maybe the answers lies in the intent to embrace both, to not get comfortable with any of them, to remain active in our search for the two of them. Maybe it is in the understanding that our happy place lies in having both flexibility and stability compliment themselves, like fraternal twins that fight all day but love each other tremendously. It also means learning what our boundaries are, trying to see outside of them, but only cross those boundaries when we are ready.  

As for my life outside the yoga studio that translates into finding a balance between what comes naturally and what I have to force myself to learn. Maybe my next goal is simply learning how to rest, that definitely does not come naturally. I am confident, though, that balance and me can become friends soon, and so is rest and all the things that I need to work extra hard for.  And even if that seems really difficult now, and even if I fall a thousand times while trying to master those things that are really hard, I might eventually do it. The equilibrium between flexibility and balance can only be found in the active pursuit of both, not in the act of giving up to what is easier and that, it seems to me, it is really, really hard, but also really, really good. I am going after you, balance! 

Happy valentine’s day!

Thinking today that in this era of fact checking, google, wikipedia, bias media, even Alexa, there is only one place where the facts are not as important as the perceived truths: relationships. In every relationship bonded by love and/or affection what we do and what we say does not hold most value if is not aligned with how it is perceived. We can be as good as we think we are, as loyal as we strive for, as affectionate as a teddy bear, but if the other end does not perceive it as that, then the message gets lost in translation. So for all the lovers out there, don’t be content with sending the right message. Make sure it arrives safely to your intended destination. Let’s this be the day we not only send love notes, but that we tend to the hearts of those we love. Happy Valentine’s day to all the lovers, to all the friends and to all who are brave enough to love fiercely. May love follow you wherever you go!

I am leaving here one of favorite love quotes feom the movie Don Juan de Marco.

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The loving eye

Las year  I had the wonderful opportunity to study with one of my favorite painters, Antonio Lopez Garcia (b. 1936 in Tomelloso, Spain) for the second year in a row.  This exceptional artist with his eighty-three years-old wisdom, opened my eyes in a very dramatic way.  It literally felt as if he had drilled through the cement glasses I had been wearing. His poetic words and his guidance guided me through the beautiful path of relearning how to see, not only as an artist but as human being.

There is a respectful eye, there is a loving eye, and there is cruel one. I have loving eyes.
— Antonio Lopez Garcia

According to Zen Buddhism, I experienced what is called “Beginner’s mind.”  It involves casting away all our preconceptions to see the world with renewed openness and  eagerness as if we were learning something for the first time, as if were curious kids whose brains want to absorb the world around them. Despite all the years I had been painting before I was able to attend Antonio Lopez’s workshop, the experience taught me more than any other class, book or practice hours in the studio.

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From all the knowledge, my favorite lesson was to learn how to observe the world with mindfulness, with care.  After a few days, I felt as if I was in love with the world in a way I had never been before. The sun was beautiful, the clouds, the gentle rain, the leaf that fell at my feet, the amorous manner in which an older couple walked holding hands, the particular way my soul vibrated while listening a song, the shared laugh with friends. I was not passing through life, I was living. I started appreciating the beauty in all the things we usually overlook: the uneven pavement, the cars stuck in traffic, the sad face of a cashier.


His wise words also made me question not only if I wanted to look at the world carefully, but also how  I wanted to do that. “There is a respectful eye, there is a loving eye, and there is cruel one. I have loving eyes,” he said and there was no doubt in my mind that he indeed had a very loving way of looking at the world. What kind of eyes I had? What kind of eyes I wanted to have? After all, everything we pay attention to transforms, grows, becomes relevant. 


Shawn Achor calls it the tetris effect. We start seeing the patterns we want to concentrate on. So, what was going to be my pattern? I chose respect, I chose love, I chose possibilities. I chose to concentrate in seeing the best side of everything, not as a way to ignore the true essence of something of someone, but as conscious decision to acknowledge that besides the ugly parts, there is always something beautiful and inspiring.  Of course, this is a task that goes against the current. We got to renew our vows to look at things in that loving matter every day, every minute. Sometimes looking at the world with respect involves observing with full honesty.  Because if we are truly looking, truly mindful, not only beauty blossoms, also the truth.

I am really grateful for that lesson, for having regain a more profound sight. Hopefully by the time I am eighty-three like Antonio, my eyes will be drunk with beauty and my heart full and tender. Hopefully, my mind will still remember the day I learned to see, and hopefully my curiosity will remain as eager as when I was a little girl. But if I am not that lucky, I can only wish that my soul remembers how much beauty surrounded me.  

One of my favorite drawings of all times, a portrait of Maria, his daughter by Antonio Lopez Garcia.

One of my favorite drawings of all times, a portrait of Maria, his daughter by Antonio Lopez Garcia.

About honesty and pain and watching angels sleep

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend about how sometimes people choose not to tell truths to their loved ones because they are afraid of hurting them. For some reason, some words came through me and I expelled them without filter. The weight of them did not hit me until later. At that moment I told her: “We all have a different level of tolerance for the truth.”

That sank in me….deep.

We all have a different level of tolerance for the truth.

Yesterday, I stayed a few seconds observing my three-year-old son while he was still asleep. That peaceful face, his cute lips, the way he puts his hands as if he was praying, the glow of innocence. My heart swelled while I rejoiced in the moment, thinking how much I love him and how I want to protect him from pain for the rest of his life. I did the same thing with my daughters too when they were younger but now they had grown and if they find me looking at them while they are sleeping they would probably scream, “moooom, creepy!”   So I don’t do it anymore. However that desire to protect them has not evaporated. They have had their shares of pain, and for the most part, I had been completely unable to shield their hearts.

I don’t take it personally, it has not been a fault on my part (again, most of the times. Occasionally, it has been questionable)  As humans it seems impossible to avoid pain completely. In fact, it is thanks to pain that we grow. I don’t speak butterfly language which would make it impossible for me to prove this, but I am sure a caterpillar would not find the process of breaking out of the cocoon a painless affair. Extending the wings, parting the chrysalis, trying to fly. And then, it is an inevitable process.



If life were a seesaw, honesty would be on my side, pain on the other.  Sometimes finding the balance is quite difficult. But in life as in the playground, we need two similarly weighted sides to find balance. When honesty is heavy and big, our pain goes high.  When pain is massive and large, our honesty shrinks, either be honesty with others or with ourselves. We avoid the truths because we don’t want to feed the pain. Then how do we achieve that balance?




I am a firm believer in living with sincerity, facing our truths as painful as they could be. But as I started writing this I realized that the phrase I told my friend weeks ago was incomplete. It should have said, “we all have a different level of tolerance for the truth and for pain.” We should choose the level in which we take and in which we give both. There are no right or wrong ways, just several roads to the same destinations. Some paths are shorter and straighter, some longer and windier. We got to choose, but whatever it is, we need to own it. Even when sometimes it seems life sends us blows that break us into pieces, we still get to choose how we managed the truths we unveil. 



My kids will not remain innocent all of their lives. So many times we will cry with them and for them. Sometimes we will have to tell them what they don’t want to hear. So many times we will have to hear what we are not ready to face. I won’t be able to shield them all their lives the same way that I can’t prevent so many tough lessons I would have to go through. Our level of tolerance will vary, expand. I can only hope that when I am asleep, truth comes to my side  and see the parts of me that remain innocent and wants to protect me. I know pain would be looking closely too and hopefully the two can come together and ride the seesaw like giggly kids in a constant game of ups and downs. When one of them falls the other will pick it up. I cannot control their game but I can stay committed to finding my own balance, knowing that I would probably fail at it many times, but every time I will break the cocoon and come out stronger.

 

 

Life Lessons From Art History

Today it would have been Virginie Avegno Gautreau’s birthday, better known as Madame X. She was the subject of one of John Singer Sargent’s most iconic paintings and a personal favorite.

Sargent had earned an esteemed reputation as a portrait artist by that time, one that was strongly influenced by his constant success in the Paris Art Salons and ample clientele. The painter was fascinated with Gautreau defiant personality, her exotic looks and elegance and ability to attract attention as a cherished socialite. I don’t know why Sargent then decided to take the biggest risk of his career.

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“Madame X” by John Singer Sargent, 1844.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 He Asked Gautreau to pose for him. He spent days around her sketching her in different poses and then decided to paint her in a standing pose, featuring her profile, her svelte figure, her tiny waist in that provocative dress. It was in fact one the simplest and most brilliant paintings he had done. But it was not what catapult “Madame X” into the hall of fame of art history, it was a fallen strap.

Her naked shoulder, the fallen strap that seemed as it has been carelessly forgotten caused a revolution at the 1884 salon. People were on Sargent for a tiny strap. How daring! This was the man that would draw male nudes with their full masculinity on display, that painted fabrics so sensuous that it makes them almost impossible to keep your hands away from them, sensual women, gipsies and actresses. But it was that bare shoulder that caused him to distress and made a scratch on his otherwise impeccable reputation. That was in Paris, the always modern Paris nevertheless.

Sargent, beaten up, decided to scratch the fallen strap  and painted it on its original place, in a move that rivaled the Vatican ordering to cover their paintings with fig leaves.

Current and original version as seen through X-ray studies.

Current and original version as seen through X-ray studies.

John Singer Sargent was devastated by the bad reviews and left  to London where he ended up producing an incredible body of freer and beautiful work.

The reason why this is relevant, beyond its place between art history scandals, is that at some point we all experience setbacks like Sargent did. This event, although probably painful for the painter at the time, sounds truly ridiculous with the advantage point of view presented by time. Gautreau had other minor portraits made of her by other artists that do not rival Sargent’s work in quality or beauty. His talent surpassed the stupid scandal and it left us with a gorgeous life size painting well worth a an obligatory visit at The MET (thanks to Sargent who sold it to the museum three decades later)

So if you feel all eyes are on you, learn from Sargent. It will pass! If you are being bullied, remember bullies do not hold a place in history the way the courageous people are. If you decide to amend mistakes, make sure it is because you believe on it and not because you are trying to please an audience. If you fill critics hold the key to your value and talent, remember the best will always attract bad comments and well as the nice ones. And if you feel like Madame X, then wear your straps whatever way you like. Ban de fig leaves, ban de repaints, own your s...tuff!


Happy birthday, Madame X. Thanks for inspiring several generations of trailblazers. I hope I get to visit you again very soon!