Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

12 March 2017


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19 June 2011

Zen and the art of golf: An inquiry into trust

There’s already someone who has invented zen golf, but what my title here refers to is the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM), which is a 1974 philosophical novel, by Robert M. Pirsig. This book had a profound effect on me as a teenager. Since studying for a PhD has drop-kicked me into getting in touch with my inner geek, and reminded me of what it’s like to be a student again, the title of this post seemed appropriate.

I am back home. Scotland and the moist, northern light and ever-present sea and St Andrews and my wise, dear friends are there, and I am here, in klein kikkerland, or little frog country, as the Dutch call Holland. I stuffed my books into my car, drove four hours south through amazing beauty and the Scottish Borders–cattle on a thousand hills–sailed across the North Sea in a ferry from Newcastle to Ijmuiden, and was home. That’s me the day, they would have said in St Monans.

I fear my books have multiplied like rabbits in dark corners. As my car disgorged them, they quietly filled corners on all three floors of our house. They are there still, sagging in the plastic bags I had to pack them into when the cardboard boxes would not fit into my car. They have titles with words like peace and conflict and path.

The two weeks before I left were filled with playing golf. I played ten rounds of 18 holes in 14 days. And I got my handicap! But in the meantime, I memorized the wind and rain slapping my cheek and tearing my hair out of my visor. I recited the number of shots like a meditation as I watched the sun come and go, the sea turn from blue to gray, the gorse shine gold, and the far hills rise and fall.

And that’s where I got the idea of the zen of golf. I have learned many things during this year of being set apart for creativity and research. I have learned that one must let go to lay hold. That when we are afraid because we cannot control our world, then this fear is a friend because it signals the time to trust. I used to call them the foreign tribes of fear and think they had to be slain and banished from the land. Then I discovered fear as a friend, a warning system, a means of communication for my subconscious. How to befriend the foreign tribes? Sounds hauntingly close to International Relations. Listening, respect, trading stories, admiring each other’s children . . .

Some of you will know the motto of this season for me has been unexpected gifts at unexpected times. But to receive the gifts we must see them, anticipate them, trust in them. “I trust” are words like “I hope,” stabs in the dark that may just tear through the tapestry of terror to let the light in. I’m thinking Plato’s Cave here, which is another blog post all together.

What about the golf, you ask? Well just before I started playing my manic 180 holes in 14 days, I received my MA in International Relations. Somehow I managed to write a master’s thesis (they call it a dissertation in Scotland), and put together a research proposal for my PhD dissertation (they call it a thesis in Scotland). I don’t know how I did all that work. Dreading it in January, I remember calling my daughter and freaking. Now, looking back, all I can remember is sitting at my wee desk in my wee house in the wee fishing village of St Monans and watching the tide come in and go out as hours ticked by and pages were typed and books perused. Day after day after day. Until it was done. I woke every morning and thought, I trust. My friend and mentor here says this is a great gift. I agree.

In golf, there comes a moment during the swing when one must stop trying to control it, trust the muscle memory and surrender to the power as the head of the club smashes against the ball and sends it flying. The grip is important. My handicap-4 son tells me I need to keep my eye on the ball more.

In golf there are giant bunkers that swallow your ball. But you get down into the bunker, dig your feet into the sand, aim for an inch from the ball to dig it out, swing as fast and hard as you can and follow through, then do it over and over and over until the rescue is complete.

On golf courses there and here, I count up and down, walk up and down, swing up and down. It reminds me of the rhythm of the sea out my window in St Monans.

In golf a handicap is a good thing.

Now that I’m home, when I walk in my woods, I remember myself pre-Scotland, and see the memory of me in flat, sepia tones. But here I am in living color! The pending workload of continued research and reading and fieldwork, coupled with teaching would have terrified the old two-dimensional me. New me smiles softly and beckons.

“It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”–Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

12 January 2011

Furth the firth

After having written in my previous post that I didn’t know the answer to one of life’s great questions, namely, “What does the Scottish word furth mean?” I can now shed some light on what must be a question right up there with “How did the Big Bang go off?”

It seems furth can mean several things: non-Scottish, beyond The Border, away from, out, outside of, to the outside. For example, when something is furth of Scotland, it is outside of Scotland.

But I’m also thinking about the words further and furthest which often get mixed up with their cousins farther and farthest. The difference, of course, being that further means to a greater degree, and farther refers to length or distance.

But it seems that furth can also mean out of doors, in a state of deviation from, and honestly, as in without concealment of the truth. To be furth-bering is to support. and furthfilling is fulfilling. To furth-run is to expire. Furthy not only means frank, but also affable, and furthiness is an “excess of frankness, approaching to giddiness in the female character.” Hmm. But the absolute best word based on furth is furthsett which means conveying the idea of splendour.

This means that a furthsetter (which can mean publisher or author) is someone who conveys the idea of splendour. Which brings me to the photos for this post. They are new infrared images of the Andromeda Galaxy. To read the BBC story about the telescopes ran by the European Space Agency, click here. And that’s my furthsett contribution to your day.

So if one of the many meanings of furth is beyond, and firth means sheltered place or arm of the sea, what does the title of this post mean?

Where are we now?

Lastly, here is my favorite scene by a different kind of firth, yet another illustration of how words and languages exchange splendour across a universe, this one called the human heart.

6 April 2010

Process of renovation

(4th in a series of five–Written in Poland 13 March 2010)

Interview with Jurek Ludwikowski:

First, look at the frame itself and imagine which picture it will fit and the right period and color. Imagine a hidden image. For example, the frame near the dining room has a lot of brown in it and silver, old silver on the edges.

Secondly, look at the quality of wood—what can be improved and renovated Once you decide to renovate a frame, you must be very careful because when you renovate a frame, you change the character of a frame. He has to change anyway, but you want to change it without losing the essence of the frame, without changing the soul of a frame.

For example, Impressionist painters like to have Baroque-style frames. But you must also keep the differentiation between the painting and frame—consider the tone and color of the painting and the tone and color of the frame, as well as the paspartout. There is a separation between the expression of the painting and the expression of the frame. This separation is important

What is the soul of a frame? It’s not just the frame; the interaction of the paspartout plus frame plus picture, all of this together is the soul.

Here is an example of the process: I bought a painting that expressed a classical idea. Would this fit in a normal frame? So I asked myself, “What can I do?” I decided to extend the picture. I used the paspartout to put an oval painting into a square frame. The painting itself is highly symbolist, it’s expressing something of high quality.

Art and imagination, the combination is so important!

This painting was a coincidence. I went to a framing store in Brussels, and decided what they were asking for was ridiculously expensive and I could do it himself in my own workshop, since he I the tools.

Look at the framework. Ask what the connection is between the frame and the picture. Keep the soul of the painting.

Is there a golden rule, what sets you apart from bad renovators? I don’t differentiate—I use different sources. What you are doing with poetry, I do here. I spend hours to bring more feeling—it’s the same process as asking over and over again, what am I really trying to say? It’s a matter of interpretation; you and I just use different materials.

What is art? Beauty is intellectual (K: it has to do with the associations), but a decorator is fighting for his own beauty; a combination between humanism and softness, this is beauty.

How do you feel when you get it just right, the right combination of frame and picture? I always have a “but” to my own work. Never satisfied. I could always do better.

To create beauty is the highest motive in life. I have failed a lot of the time; it’s a matter of emotion, that of the creator, and that of the person who sees the final version. It’s a combination of work, emotion, and intellectualism (associations).

Art is the element of two creators:  the one who gives, and the one who receives.

5 April 2010

Falling off the map

(3rd in a series of five–Written in Poland 10 March 2010)

Today we left the safe-haven, poetic retreat and visited a nearby town. Wandered between patches of melting snow and ice and looked up at gables and pastel-colored houses, medieval architecture poking its head around every corner. Visited a farm where they made wine in 1665. Thought of the 17th century and what happened then: Hendrickje Stoffels (see painting) and young Titus, the beloveds of Rembrandt, both of whom died of the plague before him; explorers falling off the map into the New World; the Dutch Golden Age.

This is what I noticed: when I was last in Poland 11 years ago, there were fewer billboards and gas stations. There were more prostitutes along the highway. More children now. No mobile phones then. More cars now, and traffic. When I used to crisscross Poland for stories and interviews with elderly people, I drove too fast on empty roads. I lined up for hours to buy gas. The U.S. embassy sold me gas in Warsaw. Now it’s the gas stations lined up along the road instead of the cars.

But there’s something more, something beyond the youth and the technology and the shopping malls, soft toilet paper, double-paned windows and mod-cons. My student friend said it has to do with a new attitude: “Polish people have always been cynical and negative. Lately people are more positive.” I wonder if this is hope, hope for a future, hope to build something, hope of freedom.

My Poland, the one I traveled to several times a year from 1988-1998, the one I brought vacuum-packed meat and vitamins and bananas and oranges and morphine to, was a poor Poland, downtrodden, beaten into submission by Soviet humiliation. The daily indignity of not having enough toilet paper, waiting in endless lines for everything from bread to deodorant, the unreliability of flows of electricity and water, all served to keep an entire population from hoping.

What I saw today was a third-dimension Poland, one enjoying normalcy. No longer a crisis-state, bent beneath martial law and fear of the secret police, a dread of the shaking ground preceding the oncoming tanks, this Poland revels in daily debates among the different political candidates for the upcoming election—what fun to argue like this! This Poland has opinions about everything, outspoken—of course! With shoulders shrugged high—opinions. I only saw one little old woman wearing army boots today—they used to be walking down every street. And instead of half-empty shop shelves, now the most chique boutiques and department stores line the cobblestoned streets.

Isn’t materialism delightful?

So what I feared all these years in my staying away, was that a cheap, plastic, imitation-America longing would have replaced the sincerity and integrity and deep devotion of the friends I knew here twenty years ago. This afternoon we visited a jazz café-slash-art gallery, owned by friends of the grandfather for 18 years. All these cigarette-smoking, intellectual-looking women sizzled their stares down at us from the walls, appearing as if they knew more than we ever would about the ways of the world. I could see the crowded, blue-with-smoke evenings, intellectual conversations about politics, hear the crooning jazz.

What the grandfather has done this week is open up to us about his life: the jazz café, the architects in the restaurant where we ate, his theories about love of art, the family photos of barbecues and short-sleeved laughter.

I wonder at my own falling-off-the-map reaction to the art here, to the grandfather. For years Poland drew me home, and now I have returned again, a prodigal daughter in search of some soft reconciliation of mind and heart, spirit and soul.

4 April 2010

Language of the heart

(2nd in a series of five–Written 9 March in Poland)

We hunted poetry Sunday, driving 900 km to find this place of peace, wondering at the words of poems read in the car. I’m told that after I went to bed the first night, poetry was recited by heart in Polish before a crackling fire and emptying bottle of vodka. We find ourselves in rich hunting grounds. I passed fields full of deer and thought of betrayal and communism and empty villages where people sold their souls.

“No prostitutes standing along the highway anymore,” I said. “We don’t do that anymore,” came the answer.

The one piece of research I still needed for my novel was how old painting frames could be renovated, and yesterday, after falling asleep in rooms with 200-year-old hardwood floors, every plank a story, we went to the grandfather’s studio and old frames looked back at me through hollow eyes

And winked.

Old and new.

Renewed, rejoicing, resurrected, rehabilitated, renovated, relaxed, rested, resuscitated, revelatory, redeemed, revealed, reborn, and released.

Sunset, orange with purple hues seen out of a snowladen window: dried-up well, trees, fading sky,

Back home.

So tonight he cried. The grandfather. And so did I. And then my student friend also. “She has this effect on people,” she said, I think about me. For a few precious seconds we spoke the language of the heart. It had been two days of Polish, French, and English, words all around us, some invisible, others so tangible they cut us open, poetry and vodka at night before an open fire place until 1:30 a.m., poetry our own, poetry by others, words like balm over the wounds of time.

La langue du cœur. She: “That was such a powerful moment. Did you see his eyes, they watched his grandfather and filled with such emotion.” It was the first time he’d seen his grandfather cry in 20 years.

The letting go, the white-hot power at the table; we all sat so confused, struck dumb with compassion, even the words did not know what to say.

This after the grandfather told about being asked to write a book about his childhood during the war and surviving the Warsaw Uprising as a child living in the sewers. I sit beside him now and watch him laugh, tortoise-shell round glasses, a cap patchworked velvet with holes around the sides, “so my head can breathe,” slippers gray with white embroidery flowers. “My way of creating is a mess, a catastrophe. I have no method, no regimen,” said the man who roams the flea markets of Brussels and rescues his prizes like released hostages. Labors of love, the paintings restored, the frames enhanced, wooden sculptures, refurbished furniture, polished wood, all these sculptures and carvings and Italian Renaissance and Art Nouveau and Impressionist artists, they crowd around us, a cloud of witnesses to the words whispered and sighed, poets present, poets past.

Last night one of my student friends heard the news that an article he wrote would be published by one of the top Foreign Policy journals in the world. We celebrated with vodka, of course.

I asked the grandfather how he decided what to work on; so many projects calling to him, what filter did he use?

But the other student said to me, “Anne, your writing is different than his workshop. If he doesn’t work on something, it’s still on the table a week later when he returns to the studio. If you don’t write down what is there when it shows up, you lose it.” So what I’ve heard today is 1) to follow my heart, 2) to do what is burning brightest, like a child builds a fort—work your hardest, and when you’re finished, you walk away.

I’ve known this. I’ve known that the writing is supposed to be played like music, in childlike abandon. I unburied this treasure all those years ago, yet again and again I squandered the knowing, imposing schedules and deadlines, restricting the flow, damming the Living Water to a stagnant hell.

I told the grandfather in a previous life I was a mafiosa. He told me in a previous life he was my servant. I told him, “You are mistaken; in a previous life, we were brother and sister.”

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