Saturday, August 06, 2011

Bugs, Sweat & Tears

I really am a studio painter, but the outdoors has been calling. So last week I ventured outside with paint and brushes. Not only am I an inveterate studio painter, but I also have a nasty habit of learning things the hard way. I couldn't just take a simple walk with a few paints and brushes. No. I had to spend days, making sure I had just the right equipment. So off I go for an afternoon in the great outdoors with everything but the kitchen sink in a backpack that certainly must have weighed half a ton. I even brought extra socks in case the mosquitoes might be particularly ferocious. It was pushing 90° and the air was dripping humidity. As you might have guessed, I was worn out before I even began to paint. If this is going to work, I'm definitely gonna need a sherpa.

I met some veteran plein air painters in a local Japanese garden where I started this painting. I had so little confidence, I brought some cheap inkjet paper to paint on. The paper actually melted under my wet brush, forming little pills all over which I tried to make into leafy looking, outdoorsy things. But wait! There's more! Everything kept moving and changing before my eyes! And there's so much of it! Painting en plein aire there are no boundaries to help focus your attention so you have to concentrate like never before. All of your senses sharpen dramatically. You're aware not only of your composition, but also of your immediate surroundings. What creepy crawlers are sharing your spot with you? It's enough to make a grown woman cry. This reminds me of my first summer sesshin at Hokyoji in southeastern Minnesota.

In August at Hokyoji the fields are lush, bursting with wild flowers and wild life. It is a magical sight to behold. Early in the morning the valley is shrouded in fog that burns away as the sun comes up revealing a sea of spider webs and dew. August is the peak of bug season. I can tell you I have never been so awake as I was that summer. I was frantic, relocating bugs and spiders from well-trodden pathways where priest and novice robes would certainly brush through their webs and carry them to an uncertain end. And of course during zazen I was wide awake to note any "wildlife" that might be wandering near my zabuton. The mice at Hokyoji are not those cute little gray city mice either. Those guys are big, brown ones and they are not afraid of humans who sit perfectly still for hours on end. Sleep during zazen? Who could possibly sleep?!

I spent the past year and a half helping to sew Zen priest robes, from the Okesa all the way through to the under garments. They are not my robes. While I am happy for the person who will one day wear them, there is still an ache in my heart, a sadness over the path I'm on and the one I couldn't take. Buddhists (the ones I know) are a bookish lot. I like books okay, but I'm wary of an identity that depends on books. A wild flower can teach us more than any amount of words could ever convey. A simple wild flower in her Okesa made from spider silk and dew, dependent on nothing but the earth, sun and rain. If I were to fashion an identity, that's what I would choose— a simple wild flower. In the end I don't care about words. I wouldn't choose to spend my last breaths with a book, thinking or talking about some bookish ideas. I would choose to hold and smell and feel a flower and to marvel over every wondrous facet of it's being.


  1. lovely post. I can smell and see and feel it all, the heat, the mice, the flowers.

    "A wild flower can teach us more than any amount of words could ever convey. " yes. It is so easy to get tangled and lost in words and end up miles away from where we meant to be.

    and I love the painting expedition story! yes, a painting sherpa!

    and a delicious little painting I might add.

  2. Kris ~ So lovely that you are back writing again... And this is a wonderful post - so authentic, and gentle, full of loving kindness.

    I admire you for being so dedicated to your art that you trekked into nature with all your supplies! And the painting is so soft, peaceful, serene, gentle. Love the metaphors of awareness during your process. :)

    Wasn't it the Buddha who held up a flower and in essence gave a wordless "sermon" to show the Nature of Reality? Our very Essence/Nature *is* the Flower - the same Nature as the Flower - not needing to turn Reality into words... You are That... But I think you know that my friend...

    Deep Bows for such a wonderful message! Christine

  3. A lovely post, reminds me of my book 'The Zen of Drawing' how we never really look at anything until we draw or paint it. I like your writings very much.

  4. beautiful work! love the colors.