The Art of Living.
That's the title of a book by Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who lived just about a thousand years ago. This is something he believed: “You become what you give your attention to.”
Yesterday evening, my friends Peter and Olivier and I went to the British Museum to see the beautiful Hokusai show that had just opened. Now perhaps Japan's most famous artist, Hokusai believed that his art only improved with age. He understood that, as a younger man, he did not know enough to be as great as he knew he could become.
In fact, he only really became successful in his 50s and 60s. At age 90, he declared that, if he reached 100, then and only then would he be able to revolutionize art. Yet, he had been making art his whole life. He gave art his whole attention for eighty years, and the artist that he knew he could be is finally what he became.
I was very moved reading Hokusai's ideas about daily, dedicated, deliberate practice. And I loved witnessing the way those beliefs mirrored out in the growth of his art, the creation of which -- along with his home, studio and art commissions -- he shared with his daughter, as he grew older.
After we saw the show, the three of us traipsed around the museum looking at some favorite things. As we were leaving, Peter took a photo of me in front of the Parthenon Marbles. This morning, my sweet friend sent me this:
The first thing I saw was that my dad and I were both standing the same way. Lest anyone think that was either purposeful or genetic -- it is neither. It is the way my mother made us stand when she took photos of us. And clearly, we both knew (and I still know) how to follow her rules.
The Hokusai show and this photo gave this blog post a much-needed shot in the arm this morning. Because yesterday afternoon, I wrote what I thought was a rather wonderful blog about my father's legacy of joy to me, which the glacial and glitchy hotel internet here in London saw fit to abscond with into the ether. Then that happened again. And again. I was about to give up, but. . .Inspired by Hokusai and this image of my father ghosting me in the sweetest of ways, I realized not only that I needed to write something much shorter, but also that I would only discover what it was at the end of the day.
So, this morning, I set out to celebrate what would have been my dad's 106th birthday with a group of wonderful people he would have loved -- doing EXACTLY what he would have wanted to do: Saturday morning at Portobello Road, authentic Spanish tapas at an outdoor cafe, and then a stroll across Kensington Park to see the Albert Memorial before wandering through his favorite museum in the whole wide world: The Victoria & Albert.
Although Portobello Road is FAR FAR more touristy than when my father trolled its antique stall s in the 1960s, you can still find a few treasures if you look hard enough. But far more interesting to me than anything by which I might have been tempted, was seeing what captured my friends' attention. Stu's eye caught a 19th-century seascape of Whitby, which prompted a conversation not only about the town and its association with Dracula, but also about the places that become our spiritual homes. A wonderful stall full of quite good African art led to a conversation about colonialism and politics. Graham pointed out a fabulous ceramic Maoist pencil jar, which allowed me to learn about Tibet and the beauty of its light and geology. And somehow, I no longer know why, Bryan, Graham and I got into an absolutely fascinating conversation about the Victorian fascination with taxidermy. All this from walking down a very crowded road full of tourists.
Then it was time for lunch. The place where we thought we would eat was closed, so we ended up someplace even better -- a delicious tapas restaurant owned by and filled with Spaniards. We ate outside on this beautiful spring day while listening to really good live music. Since this year's "Camp Vincent" excursion is Spain, it was a perfect chance for us to practice our language skills.
Upon leaving the restaurant, we happened to get a shot that captured our upcoming journey rather perfectly. My dad, whom my mother often called Vicente because of their many trips to Spanish speaking countries, definitely made his presence felt.
After a stroll through Kensington and past the Albert memorial, which always makes me think of my dad -- because playing Prince Albert was his breakthrough into acting -- our group arrived at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Before we entered, I posed this question to them: On some level, it is curious that this decorative arts museum was my father's favorite. Not the Louvre or the Met or the Prado, though he loved all of those. I wanted to see if my friends could tell me why.
As we wandered through gallery after gallery, looking at 18th-century ironwork, elaborately carved Tudor beds, Chihuly glass sculpture, della Robbia Madonnas, Mughal miniatures, Japanese samurai swords, and gold Thai Buddhas, I felt my dad's spirit with us. It was Stu who managed to put that spirit into words: "The V&A," he said, "reminds us that there is art in everything."
He's right. My dad believed that art could be found simply by looking around you. That art was in a pear at a fruit and veg market as much as in a museum masterpiece. He also believed that art saves lives, in the sense that, if we appreciate this most exquisite creation called the world, it not only gives our own lives meaning, but it makes us grateful for every moment and everyone on the planet. It's all about being present to the beauty of what is.
I saw so many amazing things today, but I think what I will remember most is something that Graham pointed out. I would have walked right by it. It was a large iron lock a few centuries old. Looking carefully, you could see that the locking mechanism consisted of two tiny hands which grasped the key between them. In this day and age of throwaway utilitarian objects, that someone took the time to create such a beautifully symbolic object just blows my mind.
Forever more now, when I think of the V&A, and of my dad's fundamental belief that art is in everything, I will think of that lock. That lock feels like my heart. Sometimes I just go through my days like a barely functional machine. For example, it has taken me six tries to write this blog and upload it and these photos, because of this near catastrophic WiFi. By the third time, I wanted to quit, or just pound out something terse and be done with it. But then I had to ask myself: Why do I write this blog anyway? And what is today's message?
I write this blog because practicing joy reopened my heart to the world. And today's message is a one of love and gratitude to the man who taught me the meaning and the feeling of love and joy. My dad.
So, yes, I could have just done the minimum and walked away until later. Or I could do what I ultimately did: Reach inside my heart and unclench enough to find the patience for this technology, to feel the gratitude for being right here in this room with one of the most glorious views in the world, and to share the love and joy that I am so blessed to have been given my whole life by so many people.
I choose to unclench and open my heart wide to joy and love! Six tries later, the blog that wanted to be written finally was. . .
So now, when I think of how I want to face each experience of every day, I hope I will remember that marvelous lock. I hope it will remind me that the key to my heart is held in two small hands -- which can either ball into fists or open their palms to the world to receive the love that they can then share by holding and hugging. Those open palms and cradling hands are the ones I want to hold the key to my heart -- and so to my every interaction in the world.
What a gift today was -- and how grateful I am to be becoming the joyful person I have given my attention to becoming and always hoped to be. And how grateful am I to have been taught so much about joy and love my my dad. . .Happy Birthday Dad! I love you.