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For almost a month now I’ve been very slowly reading Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor.  The Husband heard about the book on 3 Quarks Daily and I’ve been curious about Taoism and Buddhism for a long while now.  One of the things I’m enjoying about the book is the occasional brief meditation exercise slipped into chapters here and there.  For example, from the “Becoming” chapter:

“Sit still and come back to the breath. Center your attention in the rhythm of sensations that make up the act of breathing. Let the agitated mind settle, then expand your awareness to include the rest of the body. With calm alertness gradually increase the field of awareness until you encompass the totality of your experience in this moment: what you hear, see, smell, taste, and touch, as well as the thoughts and emotions that arise and fade in your mind.”  (p. 69)

Meditation is one of those things, like painting, that I really, really hope I learn to do someday but at this point in my life such activities require a focus and patience that I do not seem to possess.  Not that I’m giving up hope!  In fact, I have tried a couple of Batchelor’s little meditations and actually found them very helpful.

Which brings me to the second book I’m reading right now — An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin.  I won’t go into whether it’s a good book or not, I’ll just say this: I love this book so far.  I love how Martin writes about looking at art, wanting to own art.  I have re-read this one paragraph several times already:

“… paintings are layered… first, ephemera and notations on the back of the canvas. Labels indicate gallery shows, museum shows, footprints in the snow, so to speak. Then pencil scribbles on the stretcher, usually by the artist, usually a title or date. Next the stretcher itself. Pine or something. Wooden triangles in the corners so the picture can be tapped tighter when the canvas becomes loose. Nails in the wood securing the picture to the stretcher. Next, a canvas: linen, muslin, sometimes a panel; then the gesso – a primary coat, always white. A layer of underpaint, usually a pastel color, then, the miracle, where the secrets are: the paint itself, swished around, roughly, gently, layer on layer, thick or thin, not more than a quarter of an inch ever — God can happen in that quarter of an inch — the occasional brush hair left embedded, colors mixed over each other, tones showing through, sometimes the weave of the linen revealing itself. The signature on top of the entire goulash. Then varnish is swabbed over the whole. Finally, the frame, translucent gilt or carved wood. The whole thing is done.” (p. 81)

The same day I read this beautiful passage, the Husband and I went to our local art museum to see a show that just opened – Andrew Langoussis: What Was, Is, and Will Be.  I was stopped in my tracks by paintings as tall as me like this:

Siena Apartment, Andrew Langoussis

And especially this:

Street Noise, Andrew Langoussis(you are hereby encouraged to click through and look at the large size image…)

And as we wandered through the gallery, I realized that taking in images like these was the closest I came to meditation.  Perhaps that’s why the passage from Steve Martin’s book stood out for me so much — it captures something of the viewing process, viewing experience.  And if you look back and compare the quote from Batchelor with the quote from Martin, you might see a sort of parallel in the way each writer walks the reader through a series of layers in awareness.

“This moment was a secret among the Avery, the Scotch, and Lacey, and she saw clearly something that had eluded her in her two years in the art business. In a few minutes of unexpected communion, she understood why people wanted to own these things.” (p. 57, An Object of Beauty)

The last time I specifically remember being enthralled with a painting like this was when Marty Maehr had some pieces up in a little gallery in downtown Urbana.  I love the splash of his colors and shapes.  How could I think about everyday distractions when following lines like these?

Marty Maehr Paintings

It’s that frantic time of year between Black Friday and Christmas morning, when the overwhelming question coming out of our media boxes seems to be “What are you going to buy?” with the very clear assumption that you must buy SOMEthing.

I have a long-standing love/hate relationship with Christmas.  I prefer to celebrate the Winter Solstice instead and I wish I could ignore the whole gift-obsessed culture of the holiday season all together.  At the same time, I end up getting a new holiday CD every year, I love it when people wear Christmas hats to work, and I think decorating for the season is way super fun.

Over the past few years I’ve been struggling to come up with my own holiday customs and rituals.  This is the first year Mark and I will spend the holidays together as a married couple and now I feel the setting of traditions to be even more important.

Recently I met someone who gave me a wonderful idea.  A retired schoolteacher is meeting with Mark once a week for a writing group.  She’s an incredible, sharp-as-a-tack woman.  The writing she brings each week is short stories — often true stories from her own experiences.  Some of these she hopes to develop into a children’s book, others are simply stories to pass down to her grown kids and their kids.

Think about that.  Stories to pass down.  Real life, this-happened-to-me stories.  Do you know how your parents met?  Do you know how your mom/dad broke a leg at 10 years old?  Do you remember when you first learned the truth about Santa?

We lose so many stories, and yet there is such a wealth of incredible, personal stories out there in our families, among our own friends. How awesome would it be if we exchanged short stories this year in lieu of store-bought gifts?  I would be THRILLED if someone gave me a story.  It’s a beautifully satisfying gift on all kinds of levels — the obsessive collector, the curious busy body, the affectionate relative, or the estranged long-distance friend.

In a way, that’s what people were doing with the old custom of holiday family newsletters.  A friend of mine used to write us all a poem at the end of each year that summed up her adventures for the past 12 months … and it usually rhymed!  I’ve already asked my parents to just give me a story – any story – for Christmas this year.

Sure, writing a story is harder than just picking up something at a store … or is it?  I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer to sit at home, looking out the window, composing a little memory on my computer than go outside in the cold, drive through slushy crazy traffic to a crowded store or mall, and figure out which knick-knack will not be completely useless to the gift recipient.

My only regret is that I didn’t start asking for stories sooner.

Things I want someone to make for me:

Popabrella

Popabrella

1. a camera umbrella that attaches to the tripod mount but still allows me to attach any tripod, too

CHECK:  someone has already made this!

2. a program that gives me slick graph reports of my iTunes library, kind of like Trends in Google Reader or like this guy’s pie chart or something that combines all these programs together with easy GUI goodness.

Which artists do I have the most music from?  Which artists do I skip the most often? What are my top genres by frequency in playlists? I need to know these things.

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