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.

IMG_2769.jpg

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 regained 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.

Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop).jpg

“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!

When I was afraid

Growing up, I would dig into my parent’s extensive and varied  book collection and explore everything from the Britannica Encyclopedia, to Anthony Robbins, to Kahlil Gibran. It was in one of those books, I don’t even remember which one, that I read a phrase that would become my motto. I remember the moment of revelation it was to read it, how some kind on spiritual and intellectual door opened and changed me forever. Paraphrasing, it said that the only thing we should be afraid of is fear itself.  That moment I decided to leave fearlessly.

I faltered a lot, though.  The raising criminality in the place I used to call home and some close encounters to what could have been extreme tragedy made me powerless. Other than, I have tried to leave a courageous life.

Today, I had to face fear itself in a very unexpected location: the gym.  I attended a very fun Zumba class. I was doing my turns and my steps while grinning bluntly. Then I felt it. First time it happened was five and a half years ago and it was back, was it? I was sliding to the right and my leg seemed to have turned more than it should, and something pulled behind my knee. I moved again and there it was. I stepped down for a second thinking I should stop and rest.

Almost six years ago I tore my ACL while trying to beat my husband at a racquetball game. I ran to hit a ball and I felt the same sensation I felt today, but I kept going. Less than two minutes later while running again, my knee gave in, and a very loud pop echoed inside the racquetball court. I collapsed and lost movement of my right knee. There is nothing that frustrates me more than inactivity. I can’t stay still and that injury forced me to go  two months without driving while undergoing physical therapy until I recover some movement before I even got surgery. They took a tendon out of my tight and used it as a replacement for my ligament. Another month without driving, more physical therapy, then working with a wonderful personal trainer who got me jump and run and go back to my usual level of fitness.

That injury, although common in a lot of athletic disciplines, was devastating for me. It tested me in so many ways. It took me a year and a half to go back to the old me, although I discovered I was never the same. I grew a lot, I exercised my patience and acceptance, I worked harder than ever and I put all of my frustration into my painting that developed at gigantic steps during that period that I could not do much else.  As grateful as I am for the experience, I don’t want to go through that ever again!

Those were my words when I felt that strange pull behind my knee today. I would do anything to avoid it. Then my mind went to all the places I did not want to go, all the effects that another surgery will have on me. I was afraid. The class kept going on and I looked at myself in the mirror and I had replaced my grin with a big frown. I had let fear conquered me. Then I became really afraid of where my thoughts were taking me. I put the attention back in my knee. Could I move it? Yes. Did it hurt? No. Should I finish the class?…..I deliberated.  Then I remembered I was being afraid of something that could certainly be but had not yet happened. So was my fear unfounded? probably. Was I going to let fear kept me away from a great class….Oh, hell, no.

I gave it my all and I finished the class. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and my smile was back: the sign of victory. I did not let fear bring me down and I am proud of it.

Sometimes, the greatest victories come in the constant, smaller battles. When we get terrible news, we have no other option than to fight. But it is on the day-to-day smaller tasks that we fall out of the wagon because they seem comparatively irrelevant. But a dose of constant fear is paralyzing. It is like being bombarded continuously without a place to hide. 

When I saw Mr. Fear today I told him that he could go find another victim or exile. I know he would like to come visit soon and every time I will try to kick him in the butt while I continue dancing and grinning. Honestly, I am a little bit afraid of him, but mostly, I am afraid of the version of me when he is around and that is something that I am willing to to do the impossible to avoid. So, farewell, Mr. Fear! I may no control the outcome but I decide who comes visit. You, I am sorry to say, are not exactly welcomed.      

My encounter with Mr. Kent

I saw Clark Kent today…

Today I went to Costco, an experience I usually repudiate because I always go for celery and leave with a cart full of things I did not even know I wanted and most likely didn’t need.

But it was there, while pushing my cart among lemons, pineapples and batteries that I saw him. He was tall, probably 6 ft tall, with two extra inches of white hair that moved with the same vibe than a slow-moving shampoo commercial. It was a full set of hair.  

Over his blue eyes, black rectangular and very hip eyeglasses.  He was wearing a very puffy, long coat, the one you use to go pick the mail in Manitoba. But it was understandable. He was standing in front of the Costco Freezer. Checking his phone, a smile peeking in his face. It is not like I was shamelessly studying him, but it was impossible to not notice him. And then I noticed….

Under his blue shirt, only a few buttons open. Actually it would have been appropriately open if he was attending a party at at Caribbean resort; it was definitely too open for a New England winter. But I could not see his chest. Timidly peeking at the bottom of his neck there was a blue t-shirt. The yellow and red lines were distinctive. Under the heavy coat and  the blue button down, he had a Superman T-shirt.

I smiled, not at him, but for a moment I had to think twice if it was Halloween. It wasn’t. This man was not in costume, he looked like the real deal. Well, as if Clark Kent was in his seventies. But he was the coolest seventy-year-old I had ever seen, not counting my father-in-law. 

Because the aisles of the Warehouse club sometimes seem like a labyrinth, Mr. Kent and I kept crossing paths. While my cart was full of fruits and meats, he was carrying croissants and cookies. Lucky him!

I saw him paying a few lines to my right and I was dying to peek at what name appeared in his membership card. I didn’t, I let him go.

I have never been into superheroes (something I am aware it might change now that my son is obsessed with the good vs. the bad guys) but I love the idea of a disguised personality. I don’t mean portraying who you are not, showing an image of a happy, powerful, successful, super woman when you are breaking inside. It is quite the opposite, like my friend Mr. Clark Kent: pretend that you are ordinary but knowing that deep inside you are superb. It is like having the time of your life with friends and not posting it on social media. It becomes your friends’ little secret. Or wearing that expensive lingerie that nobody suspects. Maybe feeling incredible proud that you were early to your appointment, crossed an item of your bucket list or  are rocking an expensive outfit that you got at an incredible sale. Nobody needs to know, but it makes you smile and feel powerful and that is all that counts. And then you push your cart through the aisle of a warehouse and somebody looks at you and questions if you are Lois Lane and you smile because you know you are more than that…you are an ordinary woman that in between grocery shopping and Clark Kents, you have discovered that you actually love the most humble, simplest, imperfect version of yourself. 

Butterflies in the stomach

What a delicious feeling is to fall in love! Those first days when everything is a bliss, butterflies flutter in our stomach, we glow, the world seems brighter, we smile alone while remembering the object of our affection, time is eternal when we are apart from that person, time goes too fast when we are together.

That feeling is so wonderful, however....it is fleeting.

A few days ago I went to a very slow yoga class. And by slow I mean we only did like five poses. The rest of the class was just practicing awareness of every single move, of our breathing, of the space around us. That is when it hit me...mindfulness is the most similar thing to the state of infatuation.

“Mindfulness is the most similar thing to the state of infatuation.”

What makes feeling in love seem so delicious is that we put all our attention into one person while the rest of the world fades. In fact, even the least attractive parts of that person and the red flags, they all become hazy. But we don’t notice, because our attention is concentrated on something else.

Mindfulness produces the same effect. We place our attention in the present, in the smaller things and suddenly the rest of the world blurs: our problems, our worries, our pain. We don’t pay attention to things because they are beautiful, we make them beautiful because we pay attention.

Is inevitable sometimes to long for that feeling of first love. Occasionally things fall out of the track because of our egos, because we don’t have a choice. But sometimes, we stop being in love because we stop paying attention, because we become robotic in our interactions and forget to be present. If you are in that moment of your life were you wish to feel butterflies again, then breathe and offer your whole presence to your significance other, to your job, to your exercise routine, to life. Make the whole world brighter. Don’t look for someone or something new. That would be a temporary solution. Go for the real deal. Only in that place where we give our all is where we find the most absolute, delicious, renewable, eternal bliss.

Things that happen in a commuter train....

Rush hour train from New York City to Connecticut. I am lucky enough to find a comfortable seat on a busy ride. Commuters are carrying their briefcases, their coats, hats, umbrellas, laptops and tablets. Lots of noise cancelling headphones.

I decide to write for a while until I get distracted by a fellow passenger. In front of me, three people share a bench, their elbows and knees touching. In the middle, a man probably reaching his 70s is on his phone, what is left of his white hair carefully arranged. It is not that I am curious, but his phone is held high on plain sight, so I read as I always do.

He is on a dating app, don’t ask me which because that is not a domain I am familiar with. Now he has my full attention.

He goes to see his daily matches. A full list of women come up. I find myself judging along: “this one seems trustworthy,” “too much plastic surgery,” “too young for him.”

He keeps closing profile after profile but he takes a few extra seconds on a few. Then he goes on goggle. Now, he and I are on full stalking mode. I am wondering if his fellow riders, only inches away, are as engaged as I am in this man’s search. The white-hair-man goes back to the dating app and disqualifies a few more women that I thought could be a good match for him. I don’t say anything, obviously.

After a while he closes the app and opens a book. I can’t read from where I am, but it has the word “power” on it.

We both stand up at the same time because we are are getting out at the same train station. From upfront he looks like an ordinary man. He could probably be my dad. He did not look too amicable or grumpy, just a plain man. I can’t avoid thinking that the beauty of dating in this digital age is that people can be as picky as they want without offending anyone. The smartness of it, it’s that an ordinary man can change the destiny of his love life with just one click. The surprising fact is that in a packed commuter train I seem to be the only one who finds a man checking his dating matches in plain sight an anomaly worth of stealing my curiosity.

Good luck, man with white hair and a book about power! I hope you find a match worth of keeping your curiosity alive.

The worst advisor

The two sides of my brain were passionately debating a dilemma today: what makes us stay with someone (love, friend) or something (job, project, goal)? Is it plain commitment, luck, stubbornness, fear? After lots of deliberation I could only find one common thread through all the examples I could think of. The answer was not something we need to possess but rather something we need to tame: our ego. Is there a worst advisor than ego? If we make any decision, big or small, but all our arguments derive from an avoidance to hurt the ego, we might miss the chance of fulfillment and real happiness. Only by putting our ego on a tray, far from our minds and hearts, and becoming completely vulnerable is that we can really evaluate if we are in the right path for the right reasons. In painting, for example, there is an unavoidable moment (at least for me) when I feel I do not know how to continue. If at that moment I decide to listen to my ego, there is a high probability that painting no longer represents my essence, and goes in a direction that does not satisfy me at all. The point is not quitting, but rather becoming deaf to the wrong voices, not to get distracted by the siren's songs that ego represents. Now that the argument is settled, I am going to let my brain work on something else, not because I have to, not because I am committed but because I want to. Besides, I have to go pack ego's suitcases, he loves to over-welcome his stay.

 

originally written 2/2/16