Super Soul Sunday
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Gratitude: Creating a Stilled Life
Posted: Wed 07/17/2013 12:00 AM
By Sarah Ban Breathnach
"Art must take reality by surprise." — Françoise Sagan
The painting is small enough to cradle in your hands. Incredibly simple—an isolated white cup, saucer and silver spoon. But the astonishing power of its quiet restraint never fails to move me. The first time I saw the French painter Henri Fantin-Latour's still life White Cup and Saucer, painted in 1864, I turned to a complete stranger and said, "How dear!" The startled man looked at me, then at the painting, smiled and said, "Yes, you're right. It is quite dear. Isn't that a lovely word to describe a painting."
Isn't this a lovely word to describe our lives? For this is what I want each of us to inscribe tonight in the gratitude journal of our hearts: "Thank you for my dear life today!"
For whatever reason, "dear" is the word I associate with still-life paintings—groupings of objects such as fruit, flowers, dishes and books. Perhaps it is because the still-life artist bestows such affection and reverence on the trivial, the ordinary, the everyday, that this loving exuberance simply leaps off the canvas and grabs hold of my soul. Attention must be paid, life says, through the artist's brushstrokes.
I know that one reason I'm magnetically drawn to still-life paintings is that they're an antidote to my usual state of perpetual motion; Sitting still is difficult, standing still virtually impossible, unless it's in front of a painting. These quiet moments of contemplation are a salve for my jaded senses; when I turn away, not only does my sense of sight seem more acute, but also my sense of place is centered. I am grounded once again by what I love—the ordinary.
Creating your own still-life compositions is one of the most delightful and calming time-outs—a puttering pleasure to be sure. You may not be a painter, but you still have the artist's tools to help you see the mundane in a new way—color, light, arrangement and observation. The next time you're feeling frazzled or fragile, take 10 minutes and putter. The painter Paul Cézanne loved creating kitchen still-life paintings: a yellow pottery bowl with a few apples, a loaf of bread, a colorful blue napkin. For the living room, pull down a vase that has been empty for too long this past winter and fill it with white or lavender lilac branches. One of Vincent van Gogh's most beautiful paintings is Sprig of Flowering Almond Blossom in a Glass. I have always associated dark moods with van Gogh, but this small, exquisite rendering of hope is a poignant testimony to isolated moments of serenity—even brief ones.
In your bedroom, why not gather together on a bureau those black satin evening shoes you love (but rarely wear), a perfume bottle, a necklace and a scarf? Pull a favorite hat out of its box and prop it on the bedpost. (Should someone ask "Why is that there?" tell them it reminds you of how much you love hats and how rarely you wear them. But that's going to change, isn't it?) In the garden, even empty pots can be artfully arranged. But what's even better is that by pulling them out and noticing them, I'd be willing to bet you'll find the time to fill them with something yearning to grow and bloom where it's planted.
Just like you, dearest friend.
Above all, play with arranging your belongings. Let the juxtaposition of the ordinary objects surrounding you reveal a visible veracity about you and the life you lead every day. Life expresses much truth in the sight of a bowl of cherries, a few stems of flowers, a cup and saucer.
Yes, the gift of the everyday is very dear. And for that reason, and that reason alone, we all have much to be grateful for today.
Photograph by Joann Savio