|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
Nature, in all its still pure nature, is where I sought always to find solitude and possibly myself, since I could not find it in any reflection. Under the immensity of sky - untouched by man's nervous reach - I would feel safe and free. Sky, as well as mountains, deserts, fields, forests and the sea, provided a sense not of my own infinite smallness but as part of it all - molecule for molecule, atom for atom, part of all there was and would ever be. At such moments I could feel reborn an innocent, and I could forgive even my past. It was the past, fixed in memory, which drove me on, out of one place, searching for the next. After two years of searching, we found our place - amid the Hudson Valley, apple orchards, fields, woods and mountains. Almost a hundred miles north of New York City, New Paltz appeared distant enough and an appropriate omen, first settled (disregarding the local Indian tribes) in the l7th Century by Huguenots fleeing persecution of their time. New Paltz, I felt, could become my final refuge as well.
I had convinced Isaac - practicing medicine in Chicago at the time - that he and his family ought to have a summer home. Together, we bought several acres of rolling woodland along the shore of Lake Sharon under the Mohonk cliffs of the Shawangunk Mountains. Isaac and his family moved into an already existing house which we would share while our own house was being built next to it. Even though Isaac could not spend much time "on vacation", still the moments together were precious reminders of times shared. Our newly built home, with a large studio, overlooking Lake Sharon, woods, fields and mountains as far as the eye could reach, appeared like a dream turned into reality. Often I rose long before dawn to watch the sky turn lighter, and then the sun, heralded by a pink glow, rise triumphantly and I would feel transported and transfixed. When bathed in mist, dawn revealed heaven and earth as one. These were moments as much of mystery as of revelation, and I felt grateful to be able to share them not only with Rennie but now also with Isaac, my brother, and agree with Candide that this was indeed "the best of all possible worlds".
Amid mountains and rocks, trees and clouds, their reflection in the lake, even in frogs, birds and snakes, I could see confirmation of my own Millipede, this ongoing progression of relatedness and transfiguration.
No longer cramped, the new large studio became the ideal workplace, especially for the Millipede. In its new surroundings the Millipede quickly grew to 1000 feet, its originally planned dimension. But it beckoned - with tantalizing visions - to go on, never to be finished, confirmation of a world of change, mutation and transfiguration without end, without beginning, assured that even before the cosmic "Big Bang", something must have led to it. "A cycling, recycling universe", I meant to see reflected in the Millipede: recycling, resurrecting fragments of former works, transcending their origin, but remaining mostly private whispers beyond public hearing.
It became a time of almost fevered activity, barely effected going to New York once a week to teach at The New School. In the evening I could always return and relax with a quick swim in the lake or a boatride, sometimes just drifting, drifting along in the stillness of it all, watching the sky darken and first Venus and then, one by one, other stars emerge - millions and quadrillions, uncountable, unfathomable suns and galaxies among which I seemed adrift. All was stillness, broken only by memories of a past and the dreams of some future. Where then, I began to wonder, was the present if even this sentence is past already. If there is no present and the past is past and can never return, there remains only the future. This might well be the most splendid of all realities: the future as perceived in dreaming and contemplation.
Beyond dreams, down to earth, Renine and I explored every trail, climbed every mountain, to look down into valleys of fields and apple orchards, to still other mountain ranges and finally watch the sun set beyond the Catskills. We gathered blueberries and wildflowers, tried to identify every bird - Pileated Woodpecker, Hawks, even Vultures, Pheasants, Owls, Chicadees and Humming Birds. "But a Nightingale - in New Paltz"? Spring and Fall we listened with stilled breath to the honking of migrating geese; I greeted them as kindred spirit. To visiting children and, eventually grandchildren, we pointed with delight to every deer which crossed our path and with greater caution to skunks and snakes. I watched nights turn to dawn, Spring turn to Summer, then Fall and Winter and again to Spring, and mountains and clouds transform each other and then compose themselves onto canvasses of "transfiguration". While contact to all sorts of nature's creatures expanded, contact to my fellow men decreased, and I felt grateful for this gift of solitude. Whatever need to communicate I still retained, found its expression in increasing volume in the form of "letters to the editor". I became a prodigious correspondent, occasionally published as, for instance, the following, in the New York Times of June 11, 1985:
Is "Star Wars" the ultimate deterrent to nuclear confrontation? No, not really. Living as I do with a resident skunk in an otherwise bucolic environment, I have learned better: it is the skunk who has evolved into nature's supreme weapon and ultimate deterrent to aggression. We, who have come upon this earth more recently, might well learn from nature instead of relying on our own questionable technologies. No animal, no matter how ferocious or dumb, would be dumb enough to tackle a skunk (certainly not a second time), not even homo sapiens. We have learned to keep our distance - respectfully. It certainly should not prove too difficult to synthesize the stuff that lurks behind the skunk's pungency. Rather than plutonium, let us fill our missile warheads with skunk aroma and then dare any evil empire to challenge us or our allies. The very first salvo of stink bombs would surely end as quickly as it began. A war that literally smelled to high heaven would prove unbearable. Without traditional blood and guts, a purely stinking war would be most unheroic - it would mean the end to all wars. Nations would have to learn to live, if not in brotherly love and harmony, at least with respect for their mutual malodorous effectiveness.
I reveled in the stillness of newfound seclusion, but did wonder how long a recluse could continue creating. No matter how adept in talking to one's self, before long even the most adamant recluse might need some feedback - the give and take of social interaction, the brickbats as well as hosannas, the yeas and noes, critique and praise. Whatever uneasy relationship exists between artist and critic, it probably constitutes an essential symbiotic relationship. Without critic or scholar, the artist remains a voice crying in the wilderness. Interpreting, mediating between the artist's work and the public, the critic finds his own voice and purpose, even when, too often, it is carried too far. There remains the quartet of the artist, his work, the critic and the public - each depending on the other, often in uneasy equilibrium.
Another, most important reason, New Paltz was selected was its college. It promised not only a cultural life and proximity, but also provided the opportunity to resume neglected drawing sessions from live models. Models, however, invariably assume poses easy to hold in relaxed posture. Confronted by images of war and Holocaust, I felt a growing need for very different poses - reflecting “terror and agony”. "I must get my own model", I kept confiding to Rennie, "a model willing and able to assume difficult poses”. But I was reluctant (or embarrassed) to approach one of the models at the College.
"I think I have a model for you", one wintry day in 1994, Rennie informed her husband. At the time, she was doing volunteer work for FAMILY, a crises center. During a conversation with another volunteer aide, Jennifer, a student at the College, Rennie learned that she had done some modeling for artists. "Would you pose for my husband?" And so, on a cold November 8, which happened to be my 76th birthday, Jennifer presented herself, and I was pleased that Jennifer turned out to be a lovely young woman. "These will not be easy or comfortable poses", I explained "They are meant to reflect the imagery of war and Holocaust, of horror, terror and fear. They will not be easy", I repeated. "I'll do it", Jennifer responded: "I have been raped, assaulted and abused". Indeed, Jennifer turned out to be the perfect model. The sessions must have been not only difficult, but traumatic, evoking frightful images not only for me, but as Jennifer remarked, bringing back terror stricken moments from her own childhood.
But this encounter may also reflect the impact of Nature - and the artist's need to return. Abstract, non-objective art - these are urban manifestations, they could never have originated amid nature. As a refugee from the City, the artist seeks more natural forms. Transplanted into this new, more natural environment, down to earth, also meant planting a garden - naturally. There was satisfaction, spading the soil each Spring, and with begrimed hands dig up yet another rock. Rocks would form my most precious collection - reflecting far more than mere form or texture, but an almost divine manifestation of infinity and eternal process. It became inevitable that, with all the rocks about, I would compose them into a Japanese style rock garden, our "Zen" garden, topped with a pagoda of "cockeyed symmetry", reflecting the asymmetrical, unbalanced nature of our universe, responsible for the formation of galaxies, the very world we inhabit as well as our own unbalanced nature. "In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous" proclaimed Aristotle, and millennia after I agreed.
There were days, especially in early Spring, when Rennie and I worked our garden, bent over, nose to the ground, from earliest dawn to nightfall. With nose as well as mind close to earth, there seemed no mind for anything else; all other problems seemed to disappear, especially of one's self. Gardening may indeed be better therapy than to think and talk endlessly about one's self, self conscious and self-centered. Working the earth, with bared hands and soul, the very earth becomes the center and bears finer fruit than dug from the dust of one's past. After a day of toiling the garden, supper tasted delicious and the world smelled good. Whatever sounds passed the stillness of night were those of cicadas, peepers, the croaking of frogs and an occasional undefinable bird which Rennie imagined to be a nightingale, and then we watched fireflies transform the dark and lust overtake and rock us to sleep.
One of the rewarding moments in tending a garden came when we both found ourselves at some mutual task. I understood why the family must have been a more stable institution in an agricultural society: life and death, sex and birth following the seasons, biological rhythms and requirements of nature. Mankind now may well be in the midst of a momentous transition, especially the traditional family: from a "down to earth" natural existence to one which must become ever more artificial, in the end transformed into its own self-made artifact. One could see this process, especially the dissolution of the traditional family, most marriages ending in divorce. And yet, there must still be an abiding need for monogamy: In a world of ever increasing flux and uncertainty, the faith and mutual support of a couple can provide the one essential stability and sense of security.
I recognize my getting back to Nature as merely another escape, one more in a lifetime of escapes; perhaps an illusion in a world which seemed in constant conflict, reflecting a violent universe. Was it not born in the cataclysmic Big Bang and amid galaxies colliding, even devouring one another, stars exploding into novas and supernovas, black holes collapsing and earth bombarded by meteors and in constant rupture and upheaval. Man reflects the violent dynamics out of which he is born. And yet we are capable to dream of peace, even love, and occasionally attempt to create an island, a garden to reflect it. It is the rare exception, but ultimately the dreamers and gardeners may some day, perhaps, succeed to recreate life on earth as a reflection of that rare exception. There appear enough rare exceptions, strange coincidences, even miracles to suggest some kind of pattern and rhythm, a rhythm which seems to pervade everything - from the largest to the smallest, from the waxing and waning of the universe to the periods of female fertility, to the coming and going of ocean surges, and reflected in music and poetry, dance and imagery. All art seems a reflection of some transcendent rhythm.
Actually, most of our gardening occurred not amid the idyll on Lake Sharon, but after we moved - once again, after less than three years. One of the great attractions was the lake - it sparkled, not only in sunlight but also in moonlight. Drifting amid its reflections of shore and sky, I not only felt euphoric but at peace - at the beginning. But then, bit by bit, intruding like some awful reminder of a distant past, the lake and boat rides began to close in and remind, evermore insistently, of that other lake - the lake in Central Park and the boat ride which had battered a long ago dream. Lake Sharon, on Sparkling Ridge, took on an ever darkening and ominous tone; I could no longer bear to look at it, its reflections no longer echoing the tonalities of sky and mountain but of darker ranges. "We must move", I finally implored Rennie, and tried to reason why. The house had indeed some faults, but I could not explain the real reason - not yet. Confession and explanation would have to wait, a reminder that even in the most bucolic setting, some recollection of past horror could not be banished.
We moved again and built another house - without a view of a lake, but within view of the Shawangunk Mountains. They never appeared the same - from season to season, day to day, even from one moment to the next. Always captivated and fascinated with change, yet another series “One Hundred Views of the Shawangunks” became inevitable, inspired also by “One Hundred Views of Fuji” by Hokusai, that splendid 19th Century Japanese wood-cut artist. “Shawangunk”, however, reflected not so much the various views but “viewpoints” of the mountain, the many ways of seeing and creating. But while my art reveled in “boundless freedom”, I was relieved to discover that the new address, Pine Crest Road, proclaimed it as a “Dead End”. Seeing omens everywhere, this latest address, perhaps, spelled out my ultimate home. I was tired of running, a refugee, an exile and a migrant. "Dead End", meant that I could, finally, settle down. But could I? Never having known any place I could truly call my home, I was not even a true exile. An exile must have had, at some time past, a homeland he could call his own, of which he could dream and to which he might return. But I never had a homeland. There could never be any place, or people, or religion I could ever call my own. Settling down remains a dream for the chronically unsettled. Even momentarily confined to the same setting, no matter how bucolic, the mind continues its roaming, retracing routes and places and events previously traveled, and dreaming, again and again, of escaping - to far away places.
No, New Paltz could not remain my final resting place. I built another home, and yet another and another: In France outside of Paris, in Italy near Assisi, in Wales, on the shore of Lake Como, in Iceland, on the edge of the Sahara, on the Greek Island of Mikonos and innumerable other places - all circular constructions of round about fantasies and dreams, but always in far away places.
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