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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Living in Italy, Italywise

Finding Your Voice – Staying Open

Being and staying open to the full gamut of experience that life has to offer isn’t something that has come naturally to me. I still talk a good game, and tell myself I’ve evolved. Yet, at times, I feel a physical sensation in my solar plexus and in my chest that feels as though some kind of internal resistance or “brake” is saying “NO!” to experiences that don’t fit with my preconceived ideas of how things should be. Then, I sense my world becoming narrow and constricted. When this happens, I believe I have cut myself off from the wise, inner creative muse. My authentic voice temporarily becomes mute.

I’m learning to watch and allow even this rift in my psyche, when it happens, rather than trying to oust it. Attempting to strong-arm or wrestle it into submission only ensures resistance unpacks its bags and hangs around. Funny how steering into, rather than running from, the less desirable experiences in life can be the path to regaining one’s equilibrium.

So, in this fourth and last installment in my post series on finding your voice, I’d like to speak to something that has become a daily lesson for me – staying open. Staying open has meant not allowing myself to be trapped in my left brain, where I can’t readily access the rich resources in the expansive creative world of my right brain.

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Finding Your Voice, and Learning to Play

I believe the word “should” can be your greatest nemesis when it comes to learning to play and to “finding your voice”. As I wrote in the first installment of this series, to “color outside the lines” probably has been the most important advice left to me by my artist mother. The “shoulds” of our conditioning will keep you prisoner to preconceived concepts of how life is supposed to be, and they will leave you in narrow world that doesn’t reveal to you the magnificent possibilities of self-expression.

Easier said than done. Oh, how I wish I could toss all my “shoulds” to the side of the road, and proceed happily on my journey. But, I’ve found it’s like pulling weeds. The first step is being aware of them and seeing their roots, which go way back to childhood when potent influences, like society, the church and the school system began training our brains and behaviors into becoming well-behaved and perfect little beings.

At the beach and ready for mischief.

At the beach and ready for mischief.

We do know how to play, but most of us have forgotten. Playing was like breathing as children, but as adults all too often we look at play simply as a diversion from the more difficult realities of life vs. being a rich source for unearthing the treasures that exist in every one of us.

While, like most people, I experienced many powerful “molding” influences to keep me in line as a young child, my mom’s approach to art was a good antidote. Liz was fearless in playing and experimenting in her studio, and in the classroom. She would think nothing of going outside our house and tearing off an interesting piece of bark from a tree, and taking it into her studio and glueing it to a canvas, and then building a painting around it. She did this with many found objects, and I loved her “collage” period. I liken it to her swimming around all the possibilities for creative expression to find what resonated with her. And, different themes and media resonated with her at different times. She exemplified the metaphor of letting the river (of creativity) take her on an undisclosed journey.

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Finding your voice – in art, and in life.

Finding your voice sometimes can take a lifetime. We often have to dig our way out of a mountain of conditioning, and voices telling us how things are “supposed” to be and what is “acceptable”. Confusion ensues, and we can be afraid to color outside the lines. Because discovering one’s own voice is such a rich topic, and one central to the fabric of my being, this post will be the first of four installments.

I was blessed to be born to a mother full of life, and with a love of teaching. My mom, Liz Smith-Cox, was a highly influential art educator in the public school system. Her students remember the powerful impact she had on their lives, in the art classroom, and in life in general. I remember how she recognized my artistic abilities at the age of five when I crafted the “Happy Squirrel” out of terra-cotta clay. The little guy had movement, and personality. She kept putting clay, drawing paper, crayons and pencils in my hand, and encouraged me create or draw anything and everything that struck my fancy. No limits.

The woman who taught me to find my own artistic voice - my mom, Liz Smith-Cox.

The woman who taught me to find my own artistic voice – my mom, Liz Smith-Cox.

Then, I entered first grade, where I was under the tyrannical rule of a mean old lady, Mrs. Anderson. Someone had “taken the meat out of her sandwich” years before, and she was keen to rule with an iron fist, and a hard set of rules as to how things should be done. Why such an embittered soul was put in charge of joyous, and impressionable young children is beyond me. On my second report card, Mrs. Anderson gave me D in handwriting. My mother was dumbfounded, and when she met with the teacher to gain an understanding of why, Mrs. Anderson explained that handwriting included “coloring” and I was refusing to color within the lines of the drawings provided. It had nothing to do with my penmanship. My mom was furious. I think this is one of the first times I understood the force of my mom’s belief that creativity should be unfettered. I also remember how she stood up at a PTA meeting and gave a man a thorough dressing down for suggesting that all that was needed for art in the schools was some crayons and a coloring book. “Coloring outside the lines” became a recurring theme and mantra in her many years of teaching and workshops.

My Momma Liz was a tiger when it came to protecting and encouraging the individuality of the creative voice. I am incredibly blessed that she nurtured me along in this regard, as I believe such a foundation has helped me find my voice much more easily. This isn’t to say that I haven’t taken detours into what I believed was the accepted way to go, but something always has harkened me back to my own path.

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Piano Piano – The Art of Slowing Down

Why rush? I’m asking myself this question more and more. Italian life, and the emphasis on slowing down to savor the present moment, steadily has been exposing my American conditioning of go, do, and achieve.

Italians value slowing downs and enjoying the moment.

Italians, as a general rule, value slowing down, connecting with others, and enjoying the present moment.

My favorite saying here in Italy is “piano, piano” which translates as “slowly, slowly” or “softly, softly”. You’ll be hard pressed to find this exact translation if you refer to an Italian-to-English dictionary. This puzzles me because it is used so frequently. My best understanding is that it originates from musical terminology, and is an indication to approach and play a particular piece or section of music more slowly and softly. Nonetheless, it has become a new mantra.

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