The Caretaker – Watercolor by Jed

watercolor, Jed Smith, Italywise

The Caretaker – Private Collection of Shelley and Ed Hobson

Just a few days ago I returned from a short trip to the beautiful town of Sulmona in Abruzzo. The experience was incredibly rich and warm (thanks to my amazing host and new friend Novelia) and I am hard at work on writing a blog post (soon to be published) about this amazing slice of paradise here in Italy. While I enjoyed many things in Sulmona, it was impossible to really scratch the surface with all the area has to offer. One thing, in particular, at the top of my list for my return trip is to do a “walk about” with a local shepherd. Novelia already has made calls and is working on possibilities to make this happen. What an artist/photographer’s dream to be able to camp out with and walk the sheep herder’s paths!

As I contemplate and look forward to such an experience, I remembered this watercolor that I painted several years ago, called The Caretaker. I love painting this, not only because of the unique perspective and composition, but because of the theme of a shepherd looking after his flock. I believe I inherited my fascination with flocks of sheep and goats from my highly influential artist mother, who frequently made them the subjects of her paintings.

I am drawn to the theme of the shepherd and his sheep, also because of the metaphorical meanings of having a benevolent force in my life that always is looking out for me, and always on my side.

I’m anything but conservative or fundamental in my spiritual beliefs, but my soul does respond to images and metaphors that become inspiring companions when fear shows up in my life. Currently, I am reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, and she speaks, quiet effectively, to how fear can stop creative pursuits in their tracks. She doesn’t reserve the concept of creativity for artists. She speaks to creating a life that allows a person to express their unique gifts and ideas. This resonates with me as an artist and writer who, all too frequently, can let the voice of fear talk me out of plunging ahead with a project. Ms. Gilbert wisely counsels each of us to not fight our fears, but to allow them to coexist. However, she advises not to let fear have a say or a voice in how we proceed.

As a person who has altered his life dramatically, these sage words of advice also come in handy. Leaving the security of the known can invite some pretty big catcalls from the voice of fear.

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Remembering Morris

Watercolor of Morris

Morris – Collection of the Artist

I’m still getting familiarized with the holiday schedule here in Italy. Many of the biggies correspond with those in the U.S., but others, like Father’s Day, vary significantly. So, since Italy’s Father’s Day was celebrated in March, and since I’m not receiving a barrage of advertisements for the U.S. event, Father’s Day, as I have celebrated it, almost passed me by. Tributes to dads, ramping up on FB, reminded me to pause and be thankful for being blessed with not just one, but two great dads. My birth dad, Ed Smith, died twenty-three years ago, and his passing came too soon, and the pain cut me to my core. But, soon, another wonderful dad came into my life, and his presence helped ease my pain – especially since his presence brought so much joy to my mother Liz Smith-Cox.

Morris Cox, was an extraordinary man, and a wonderful stepdad. Mom married Morris in her early 70’s, a few years after my dad’s death. I remember Liz remarking, after the first years of being married to Morris, how fortunate she was to have experienced “love like this” twice in her life. Morris made a point of telling her, everyday, how much he loved her and how fortunate he was to have her in his life. This was a powerful lesson to me, as Morris exemplified the belief in gratitude. Studies show (check out this article from Greater Good) that our brains “light up” when we remember and practice gratitude.

Morris also demonstrated an engagement with life and with keeping one’s mind and passions engaged. He was an English professor (and Dean of the Liberal Arts College) at Clemson University, yet in his 60’s he became a student again, this time of law. He practiced law (this is how he met my mom) into his 90’s.

Morris was the epitome of a fine, southern gentlemen. Whenever he and my mom were out and about (often in his baby blue Rolls Royce), he would race around to Mom’s side of the car to open the door for her. He was keen on having impeccable manners and always being kind and generous.

I am incredibly grateful for Morris’s loving presence in my life. His marriage to Liz also brought three wonderful step-siblings into my life, and we enjoyed many “big family” gatherings.

In 1999 I painted the watercolor above of Morris, after a trip with Mom and Morris, and my sisters Shelley and Dale, to Santorini, Greece. I always loved watching Morris. I found his face rich with character, intelligence and kindness. Painting him was my expression of love for this remarkable man.

Morris, I miss you. You lived an extraordinary life, and you gave handsomely.

The Stories We Tell – Our Playground or Our Prison?

The Stories We Tell, Italywise

A dear friend recently complimented me on my patience and thoroughness in planning for and making the move to Italy. The grand re-envisioning and re-building of my life wasn’t something I could have approached without research and a plan. My vision served me well, and though there were course corrections as new information came to light, I could not have completed the journey without having a “North Star”.

In the process of following my dream I created a story of how it was “supposed” to all unfold and look. Being in my fourth year of residency here, now I can tell you that becoming fixated and insistent on MY preconceived story was the least helpful and most anxiety producing posture or mindset. When I metaphorically set down my pen, and began to allow the story to write itself, and to evolve and change (often significantly) I found myself in a much better place.

Things happen differently for different people. For some, things just flow and fall into place, and they have a natural ability to go with the flow of life. I suspect these folks are the exception rather than the rule.

The stories we tell are a manifestation of an evolutionary, conditioned need to explain life and the world around us.

The earth is densely populated with 7.4 billion individual brains looking outward at the world, and interpreting events through unique filters and conditioning. That means 7.4 billion variations on the story we call our world and universe. Yes, we may agree on some things, but every person is a unique story-teller. Our interpretive left brains, through the evolutionary process, rule all too often, how we respond to the world. Looking through the metaphorical periscope at life, and surveying the landscape for potential dangers, indeed have served us well when we were in danger of becoming some creature’s next meal. Yet, I believe this interpretive function has run amuck, dominating our lives, and telling us stories about everything. We then take these stories to be true, and our psyches and physiologies get thrown out of whack.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE storytelling. I love how stories can approach or hint at truths that never can be contained or articulated with our small human brains. I love how changeable and creative we can be with our stories – as long as we approach them lightly and as long as we don’t make them hard, fixed and literal. If we do, judgment can rear its ugly head determining how to respond, and then we tell ourselves further stories about what everything means. I believe this marriage to our stories can create a prison – one that isn’t “out there” but in our minds.

We never really know what everything means.

Personally speaking, I’ve spent far too much of my life insisting on have an explanation, or at least an answer, NOW. That’s pretty demanding and pardon my expression, rather ballsy. Like most of my fellow Earth inhabitants, I feel God or the Universe owes me an explanation. But, in my life, I’m finding that is a complete trip into futility. While some of my stories are playful, creative and exciting, too many of my other stories are judgments or indictments of the events around me that do not fall in line with my vision of how things “should” be. My imagination is a potent force. But, it can get a bit out of control, and can start trying to create a story or non-stop commentary about everything happening around me. I share this not as a dramatic confession, but as a breakthrough of understanding how my mental circuits get fried on occasion. It’s like the interpretive, storytelling throttle gets stuck in high gear.

All too often, we have a thought, and then we create a story and decide, because these thoughts and stories have appeared in our heads, they must be real…they must be true. They must be dealt with. We’re saying “I know better.” Consequently, when we find ourselves under the sway of dark emotions, often it’s because of the story we’re telling ourselves as to the “truth” of a situation.

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Biding Time and the Art of Waiting

Watercolor of Biding Time

Biding Time – Private Collection  – Jed is a Signature Member of the National Watercolor Society

Biding Time is a watercolor I completed many years ago, and is in the private collection of some very dear friends (I love it when my “children” find good homes!). Of the many subjects that draw my attention, quiet moments of contemplation or just “being” is a reoccurring theme. I might have entitled it “At Peace with Waiting”, but that title doesn’t seem quite poetic enough.

Still, waiting is an important topic for me, especially when it is paired with patience. Perhaps this simply is something that comes with age (and hopefully wisdom), because being in waiting mode, and practicing patience have been elusive qualities for most of my life. In these past few years of living in Italy, I’ve been learning the benefits of taking my foot off the metaphorical “gas pedal” of life. When did I buy into the belief that I always had to be straining at the reins, and exerting constant efforts to make life happen in the manner of which I had predetermined? The current shift continues to be “let life happen” or “let life flow” without trying to manhandle how things turn out. On one hand, insisting on effort and control is downright exhausting, and on another hand it demonstrates a lack of trust in life, and in God, the Force, or whatever you want to call the energy that infuses life into everything. And, actually, I’ve had a rather stunning realization, even though it has always been staring me in the face. In my times of impatience and rushing to get somewhere or to make something happen, I’ve been telling myself this present moment isn’t good enough. It is a stepping stone to be endured until I get somewhere “better”. What a crock. And, I bought into this belief, hook, line and sinker – until now.

I don’t want the next chapters of my life to be characterized by a race and an insistence to get somewhere else. Humans beings, as a general rule, intellectually know that we will all die, yet we behave as if we won’t. Time is viewed as plentiful commodity and we all too often overvalue achieving and accomplishing, while discarding the value of the quiet, in-between moments.

I believe most people are not at ease with moments of stillness, and of space. Perhaps we are afraid that “we” won’t exist if we’re not thinking, solving, and doing.

And, then again, perhaps we are most of afraid of being alone with our incessant, and demanding stream of thinking. Practicing the art of waiting, or biding time, can be an excellent opportunity to make peace with one’s inner noise, rather than doing battle with ourselves and/or distracting ourselves by being in constant movement.

In closing, I offer this brief YouTube video of Adyashanti offering an interesting perspective about the thinking mind. Paradoxically it is entitled Don’t Wait for Your Mind to Stop.

The Devil Is in the Detail, or Is the Detail in the Devil?

Handsome devil, Italywise

Tintoretto chose to portray a “handsome devil” in The Temptation of Christ (detail)

How many times have we heard someone described as a “handsome devil”? I never gave it much thought, until I stumbled across a handsome devil, literally, while reading the captivating novel, Lucifer’s Shadow, by David Hewson, which is set in Venice. A central character, Signor Sacchi is showing young Englishman Daniel Forster Tintoretto’s The Temptation of Christ, at the Scuola Grande’s Sala Superior, and pointing out how Tintoretto broke with the majority of the portrayals of a horrific Lucifer, and painted him as a devilishly beguiling young man. I guess it makes the temptation even more tempting. What starving person could say no to such a beautiful face?

Tintoretto, Italywise

The Temptation of Christ – Tintoretto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was so intrigued by this snippet in the plot that I rushed to my computer, and my buddy Google, and saw for myself. Now, I’m determined to make the hike down to Venice and experience this in person. My love of art history once again has been ignited, and with a concentration on the jackpot of artistic treasures in Venice, I’m going to be busy for a long time. Since my recollections of Tintoretto are too vague to be of use, I want to focus and learn everything I can about this acclaimed artist.

This painting certainly has piqued my curiosity, especially in regards to man’s endless quest to make sense of good and evil, or light and dark. This is evidenced in the stories and myths man has created and expressed in art and literature, with Satan often being a headliner.

I’m a big fan, and follower of the work of Carl Jung. In fact, I’m due for a re-reading of his book, Man and His Symbols. I believe Jung “nailed” the prevailing cause of man’s neurosis and lack of mental and emotional wholeness: Man’s attempt to split off and purge his own darkness. The devil became a representation of this attempt to jettison the unsavory parts of one’s nature which lurk in shadow side of the psyche. Jung believed a wholesale rejection of man’s shadow side leads to an individual’s unending battle with himself.

Having grown up with many heavy-handed and fearful teachings of a Southern Baptist culture, I know I’ve spent years in a war with myself. Consequently, I’ve been a prisoner of perfectionism. However, try as I may to exorcise the devil, and run from my shadow, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of bringing light, and acceptance, to all parts of my being.

I realize I’m probably getting WAY too philosophical, and usually I endeavor to avoid discussing religion or sounding “preachy” in any regard, since I believe the path to wholeness and truth isn’t a one-size-fits all. That said, I do love the following quote from Carl Jung about working with the shadow. I call it making peace with the devil – whether
“he” is handsome or horrific.

May we all find peace and integration, and may we continue to enjoy and utilize the vast myths and stories that represent our search for meaning.

Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. – Carl Jung, “The Philosophical Tree” (1945)

Seeking Clarity and the Illusion of Reality

Watercolor of Clairty

Clarity – Private Collection

The painting above, Clarity, is one of my favorites. I was drawn to this woman’s face because I sensed clarity and peace in her eyes. I also saw a wise woman who had relaxed into accepting “what is” and the inevitability of living with paradox.

I’m learning to step into paradox. I’ve been doing this somewhat begrudgingly because my bossy left brain interpreter insists on coming to conclusions of reality and nicely tucking them away on the shelf. You might not think an artist would have this kind of struggle since creative types tend to reside in their expansive, non-verbal right brains with greater agility. Yet, often I do struggle to make the shift and, paradoxically (there’s that pesky word again), the struggle itself tends to keep me trapped in the jaws of analytical thinking. The best thing, for me, is to pick up my paintbrush and start painting. Soon, thinking settles down naturally, and my insistence on a fixed reality abates.

Why do I write about seeking clarity and the illusions of reality in a blog about building a life in Italy? Because making such a huge life change has asked me, again and again, to let go of my insistence on what is reality and how my story is “supposed” to play out. If you’re contemplating a similar big life change, you might want to ready yourself to live with paradox, and the elusiveness of a fixed reality.

Man plans, God laughs. – Yiddish proverb.

Maybe I would benefit from training myself to contemplate this sentiment every morning, first thing. Then, whatever needs to be done, and what remains to be resolved won’t take on such a sense of seriousness, or insistence on my part. Perhaps this will remind me to do the best I can, while simultaneously “going with the flow”. This can be a beautiful dance, and I’m finding the universe tends to open up a wealth of possibilities previously hidden to my thinking brain.

Italy has proven to be an excellent classroom in dealing with inconsistencies and paradox. I’m an anal-retentive Virgo who likes everything “ticked and tied”. These organizational and analytical skills certainly have come in handy plowing through the numerous logistics of living here, but I’m convinced a belief that you can simply muscle your way through the bureaucracy will only ensure your descent into insanity. I’ve talked to a few “newbies” and a few people considering a move to Italy who have this mindset. I’ve thought “Oh no,” because I can smell disaster coming at the first inevitable speed bumps.

If a person can sets aside their insistence on how things are supposed to “play out” and their indignation at certain Italian policies that seem unfair, they can spend their time and energies on allowing Italy’s riches to unfold for them.

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What Brings You Joy?

Joy, Italywise

Joy – Find Yours.

I’ve been asking myself this question a LOT lately. Perhaps, getting older, and making a significant life change triggers a winnowing process. I’m a big believer in having a full life, but also I’m becoming a devoted believer in the importance of “editing” the contents of one’s life, and the benefits of traveling “light”.

This post may seem like it’s coming completely out of left field, especially on the heels of a post about the logistics of buying a house in Italy. Yet, I’m afraid I would be doing a disservice to my followers and to people contemplating a similar life change if I only spoke to the mechanics of such a move, and if I didn’t share how the journey affects me personally.

My partner and I have just moved to the Veneto, so I’m certain the packing and unpacking have been prompting reflection on what brings me joy. Also, I’ve been slowly reading and absorbing the words of Marie Kondo, in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I say “slowly reading” because something inside me recognizes an essential truth – one that could lead to adopting a significant shift in how I approach what to keep in my life (and I’m not just talking about material “stuff”). The zinger for me has been how Marie Kondo reframes how a person might approach the process of editing and creating space in one’s life. Instead of approaching the task with metaphorical pruning shears, she urges her readers to look at the individual contents of their lives and ask “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “yes”, you keep it, if not, say “farewell”.

I highly recommend Marie Kondo’s book, if only to consider a different perspective on how you value the contents of your life. While Ms. Kondo focuses primarily on one’s personal space, I believe her philosophy has merit well beyond – into the experiences and relationships of your life.

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Yes, You Can Begin Again…

Beginnings, Italywise

Each moment affords the opportunity to begin again…

New beginnings don’t have to be big to affect a true change of life’s course. My move to Italy was of the major variety. In no way was it a rash decision, yet, however carefully planned it was, I knew I was throwing the metaphorical dice with the universe, and saying “I’m willing to shake things up.” Boy did I shake things up. As wonderful as the change has been, my reference points (a.k.a. my comfort zone) changed dramatically, and I often find myself grappling to feel grounded and steady on my feet.

If you’re considering a major cultural and geographical change, be prepared for the exhilaration of the newness and “bigness” of the change, and then settle in for a steady stream of new beginnings.

As New Year’s Day approaches,  I contemplate the gift the Universe provides us in each moment – the ability to begin again. For me, like many other people, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the beginning of a new year, and the urgings from my inner critic that I’d better shape up. Dutifully I journal my resolutions, and I take some initial steps. Yet, within weeks or days, my resolve falls prey to old conditioning, and I feel as though I’ve once again tricked myself into a cycle of futile self-improvement. Self-recriminations emerge, and I fall into the wheel of Samsara, often called “the wheel of suffering.”

Then, I remember that the ability to begin again does not rest exclusively with the advent of the New Year. And, I don’t have to drag around my stories about the past, and remain imprisoned by an identity crafted by layers upon layers of conditioning. Each moment gives me the opportunity to reorient myself, and start anew.

Everyone’s journey is unique, so I don’t presume to prescribe a “how to” to anyone else. I believe much of the mess the world is already in is due to countless fights and insistence on the right “way”. With that disclaimer I share with you the lessons that seem most relevant to me as I learn to begin again.

Quit trying so hard to find THE answer to enlightenment.

My pesky left brain insists, rather desperately, on nailing the formula for “getting it right” and therefore earning my ticket into the country club of peace and unending good feelings. Ha! I keep falling for this, but I’ve come to realize the following…the more I search, and the more I strive, the more elusive peace and truth is. A prideful, intellectual pursuit of truth has led me, again and again, to a state of supreme frustration. Dare I trust that I can allow truth to come to me?

Krishnamurti said that “truth is a pathless” land, and cautioned again relying on techniques. Not doing something to reach enlightenment seems so counter to everything I’ve ever been taught in my religious upbringing. Simply shining the light of awareness on the activity and contents of my mind might very well be the most helpful thing – and doing so without judgment.

 

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The Beauty of Silence

beauty of silence, Italywise

A river in the Veneto at sunset.

I am grateful to be “stunned” into silence by the many beautiful scenes that present themselves here in Italy. And, given this post is about the beauty of silence, I will attempt to be brief in my reflections.

Silence and beauty can be experienced anywhere. Yet, sometimes a change of scenery, and a change of life can wake us from our hamster wheel thinking minds and conditioned selves. Italy has done this for me, again and again. Perhaps this is because I left the rushing torrent of a busy work life where I had little opportunity to really pause and see.

Italy has been a gift that keeps on pouring out her treasures. Thankfully, my artist-teacher-mother trained me to always have my eyes open, and to take in the quality of light, the composition of a scene, and the underlying emotions of the experience. The genes that my nuclear-engineer-father gave me, which give me abilities in analysis, deconstruction and problem-solving, often can be at odds with the aforementioned artistic training. In other words, my analytic brain sometimes yanks me out of the immediacy and “feltness” of the moment, into a noisy intellectual violence that seeks to hold prisoner the scene and the memory. Having awareness of these machinations of my mind has been a breakthrough, and more and more I am able to accept these gifts of beauty with hands willing to receive, and not closed to possess. The by-product of this is a deep, rich silence. Words cease, and even though I am not able to articulate it, I sense that my true self resides in that vast space of quietude.

I close now with a short quote from my (and my mom’s) favorite book of inspiration and comfort…

Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.  – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Living in the Present Tense.

Watercolor of Present Tense

Present Tense – Private Collection

I don’t often go through the archives of my past paintings, but recently I looked at this one, entitled Present Tense. I chose this title because, when I met this man, his direct gaze hit me as coming from someone who clearly resided in the present moment. I’m continually drawn to painting older faces. My intuition tells me this is because I am seeking out a wisdom that often comes with age – wisdom that has made peace with the past, and no longer fixates on a future idyllic state. I sold this painting very soon after completing it, and I miss having the real thing hanging on my wall to remind me to come back to the present moment, especially when I have strayed into realms of analyzing and wanting a “do-over” for the past, or obsessing about the future.

When I was jotting down a few notes before beginning this post, a powerful realization smacked me in the face. I often get lost in thought, or in “doing” to avoid the present moment. It is as though my chatty mind keeps proclaiming it is the real me and, therefore, is invested in keeping me lost in a world of thought. I confess, I am addicted to doing and achieving. Might many of our modern-day addictions, not just drugs and alcohol, but digital addictions, be manifestations of not being at peace with the present moment? Has Descartes’ famous pronouncement “I think, therefore I am” fueled a massive case of mis-identification – one that robs us of an ability to be present?

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