Monday, February 11, 2013

Musings from a Museum

In his book, Windows of the Soul, Ken Gire talks of how the most ordinary circumstances and the most mundane experiences can become extraordinary if we are paying attention. I had such an experience last Saturday, when I visited one of our local art museums with my wife, two sons and grandson. Following are some random musings:
  • I have been to many of the finest museums in the world, and still find myself in awe of the fact that I really am looking at the original painting, or the real object, that was created by hands just like mine hundreds or even thousands of years ago. This time I was marveling at some of the masters from the Dutch Golden Age, including the master himself, Rembrandt van Rijn. What struck me in particular was their uncanny understanding of light; it's as if they were able to capture in time something so ethereal and transient (perhaps evasive is a better word) that it's like stardust. The reproduction above does next to nothing to convey the astounding depiction of light in van Steenwijk's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. And hardly a brushstroke to be seen. One thing that also sets the Dutch Masters apart from other Renaissance and Baroque painters is their portrayal of ordinary scenes and people, shedding the obligation to paint Biblical scenes or portraits of monarchs and nobles. This is likely due to the Protestant Reformation, having firmly taken root in the Netherlands, which taught the sanctity of all aspects of life, not only what is deemed religious. (The flip side of this is that Protestant churches were stripped of countless priceless works of art under the austere interpretation of the Calvinists.)
  • I love to people watch at museums. Some snapshots that caught my eye: a young father and his barely-teenage son remarking on the art, the son sharing some of what he had learned in school about the techniques used here; a 40-ish man joining an elderly gentleman (easily 80 by my estimation) for a morning at the museum. There was an obvious bond of friendship between the two men, and it reminded me that souls need not know the limitations of age difference. I am fortunate enough to foster deep friendships between people much older and much younger than I, and believe we are only enriched by transgenerational relationships.
  • The innovative work of Camille Utterback was a source of wonder for all of us, including my almost-two-year-old grandson. Her use of interactive technology, combined with whimsical creativity, is not only entertaining but a reminder that we are constantly interacting with our surroundings.
I came away feeling a rich man, probably because I was awake enough to be paying attention -- which, I must confess, is not always the case.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fools Rush In

I've been in Bosnia for the last couple of weeks.

Not in person, but vicariously through author Bill Carter. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that I was in Serbia last summer as a speaker at the Sozo Festival. One of my reasons for going was to get better educated on the Balkan conflict, which ultimately dates back centuries, not decades. I was moved by many things -- most of all by the resilience and warmth of the people I met, keen to move forward in peace and prosperity. 

Most of us who have not known war up close and personal tend to think that the lines drawn in war are clear: this side against that, this tribe against that, this ethnicity against that. It is almost always more nuanced. For example, my interpreter, a gentle man with a noble heart named Bože (pron. bozheh), is half Serbian and half Bosnian. Yet, as a Serbian citizen, he was expected to join in the collective nationalist sentiment of the Balkans of the 1990's. Yes, the Serbs did commit atrocities during the war, for which their ring leaders were prosecuted for war crimes at the International Court in The Hague; but the people of today's Serbia (i.e. the ones I met) are eager to put the past behind.

No conflict is one-sided, but Carter's first-hand account of the siege of Sarajevo is a heartbreaking tale of a proud, sophisticated city brought to its knees as experienced by many of the city's artists and other creatives, as well as ordinary citizens caught in a prison for no crime they committed. For three endless years, the Sarajevans had to carefully plot the simplest errand for fear of being taken out by a Serbian sniper in the surrounding hills. Fuel, electricity, food and other life staples quickly became a scarcity as faces thinned and eyes became hollow. Yet the city lived on -- that is, all but the estimated 12,000 who were either killed or went missing during the longest siege in a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

Driven by grief over the tragic loss of his girlfriend, Carter ends up in the former Yugoslavia and joins up with a ragtag group of humanitarian aid workers who do anything but play by the rules -- bureaucratic UN rules that can be so complex as to defeat the purpose of relieving the suffering altogether. Carter befriends a number of artists and other culture shapers in this avant-garde city, and his life is forever changed by them. The narrative of the Sarajevo siege is almost completely lost on the outside world until Bill Carter has an idea. Fools Rush In chronicles a series of unlikely but true events that culminate in the band U2 streaming Carter and his Bosnian friends' testimonies live to their European concerts attended by 50,000+ per night. The band ultimately arranges to do a concert in Sarajevo once the fighting is over (1997), and the well know song, Miss Sarajevo, deservedly if belatedly brings the plight of the city to the world's attention.

Fools Rush In is not for the faint of heart. It is raw and very real. But if you feel a need to be shaken out of a comfortable slumber -- or simply need to better understand a dark period in our recent history -- you'll be impacted by your trip to Bosnia, just as I was.