I recently finished watching both seasons of the HBO documentary called 100 Foot Wave, a series that covers the massive swells (and the surfers brave enough to navigate them) that converge onto an area of the Portuguese coast known as Nazaré. For as far back as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by the ocean and the idea of huge waves in particular, an interest that I know many people all over the world share. Whenever the weather off the mid-Atlantic coast brought big swells to New Jersey, I would always try to find my way to the beach just to watch. The waves in Nazaré are in their own category, having been confirmed to be the largest in the world due to an 16,000 foot underwater canyon just off the coast that pulls the energy of the ocean down before exploding it back up to the surface. Prior to 2011, there was not much known about this small seaside town, until Garrrett MacNamara caught a 78 foot wave there that changed everything. Waves have always made me feel the same way I would at the top of a rollercoaster, and the cinematography of the series captures this anticipation perfectly. Simply put, there is something about the way a big wave builds with such crazy force and giant size that gives it the ability to simultaneously terrify and amaze us. Anything with that kind of physical and emotional force seems to also have the potential to spiritually change us, which explains why big wave surfers are such a mystical bunch, believing that the ocean holds all the secrets of the universe.
My family would be quick to tell you that it is not all that uncommon for me to call or text them at crazy hours to say, “Hurry up… go out and look at the moon!” Sometimes they will listen to me, and other times they will not, claiming extreme fatigue, too much grading to do, a child that needs to be bathed, or some other trivial matter that demands their attention. I secretly keep a little journal of who runs outside and reports back appropriately awestruck, as well as who doesn’t, although I’m not sure what prize the winner will eventually get. I’ve always had a belief, its origin uncertain, that if we have knowledge that some kind of natural phenomenon is happening, and we don’t go outside to bear witness to its spectacle, we are in for big trouble. From a very young age, I decided that it was my job to announce things like beautiful sunsets, or amazing rainbows, or massive storms coming in, or the world’s biggest spider web out by the light on the porch, all with the admonition for everyone I could tell, “No, no, you HAVE to go see it!” Even as a full grown adult at Recklesstown Distillery, which is situated in a spot where you can see the horizon from one end to the other, I was always sending the staff outside to see the moonrise, or the sunset, or some crazy frog, no matter how busy we were. It only ever took a second, but it was one that I thought it was necessary to give. If I sit down and truly consider why I feel this way, I honestly believe that it’s because instances like the ones I’ve described have that peculiar juxtaposition of fragility and power that always offers us a momentary glimpse into some important truth, much like the understanding that hovers around the edges of what we’re reading or dreaming.
This past Christmas, I bought my granddaughter Phoebe a book called In My Heart, by Jo Witek. It helps children (and adults) understand all the feelings, big and small, loud and quiet, quick and slow, that we might have on any given day. If you have little ones in your life, and you’re looking for a truly great book to buy that encourages a back and forth dialogue, this is most definitely the one. By identifying just about every possible emotion, Witek tells us that they each have their place, and that it’s okay to give voice to them all. I originally bought the book for Nora, granddaughter number one, back in the day, and I’ve read it many, many times over the past six years. It never fails to move me. Happiness is like a big, yellow star, shiny and bright. Sadness is as heavy as an elephant, a dark cloud raining down tears. When we are afraid, our heart beats fast, and a chilly breeze climbs up the back of our necks. Nora has always loved the shyness page, where we take hold of our hearts and watch the world from a safe place that no one else can see. I think that might be my favorite too. The book ends with the question, “How does your heart feel?” Jack and Nora answer right away, providing all kinds of details as to why, Nellie is going in that same direction, and I know Phoebe won’t be far behind them. I love listening to them articulate the truth behind how their hearts feel, mostly because their willingness to be honest and open, without any hidden agenda, makes it all seem so incredibly easy. I often find myself wishing that many adults I know, myself included, could find that same level of comfort with saying what needs to be said in a way that is nothing but sincere and genuine.
As this past week began for me, I found myself searching for those moments of inspiration I talked about in last week’s post. I was working on making some final tweaks to the cocktails intended for Recklesstown’s February menu, and two of them had me somewhat stumped. When divine intervention finally arrived, I did my best to muzzle my rational mind, but keeping it totally contained proved to be impossible. I directed that energy towards observing what it actually felt like to be accompanied by an abstract guide, rather than driven by a meticulous master. To put it another way, I gave my rational mind a pen and paper and said, “Here, take some notes.” I learned that I did not feel completely comfortable allowing abstraction to have a major part in setting a cocktail menu, especially since one of the most important forces behind drink creation for me has always been precision. As time goes on, however, I am realizing that it is more correct to say that a cocktail begins and ends with inspiration, but it is held together by a solid layer of exactness that rests squarely between the two. This past week’s exercise certainly reinforced this belief for me. Isn’t it interesting, though, how allowing abstraction in feels a bit like the way we surrender to water in order to be able to float, as opposed to the way we churn through it when we swim? Subtlety and nuance move to the forefront, and those tiny, often unnoticed shifts in the bedrock under our feet as we steamroll forward on all our missions suddenly feel a bit more seismic. To bring it back to the water analogy, we feel the slightest ripple when we float, but we miss it when we’re the one making all the waves.
A week or so ago I had the opportunity to visit the Brandywine Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, PA, known for its prominent collection of works by the Wyeth family. It has always been one of my absolute favorite places. I’ve had important moments there, conversations and realizations, endings and beginnings, that have affected me greatly. Each time I return, I leave with some sort of inspiration, although it has often come in the most unexpected ways. This last visit was no exception. There is an exhibit there that is currently on display that presents 37 abstract watercolors painted by Andrew Wyeth that have never been seen before by the public. For the most part, Wyeth is considered a realist who worked in the regionalist style. In simpler terms, he painted what he saw of the area in which he lived, and that happened to be the Brandywine Valley. He also captured light in the most magnificent way, and that incredible aspect of his talent has always made me feel as though I was inside his paintings, rather than merely viewing them. Despite his classification as a realist, Wyeth also saw himself as an abstractionist because he felt as though he presented a view of his subjects that was both innovative and singularly meaningful. This was something I did not know about Wyeth until I saw the exhibit and read the following quote by him: “My struggle is to preserve that abstract flash, like something you caught out of the corner of your eye.” If we consider the idea of seeing something in this way, that sudden glimpse that makes us turn our heads, isn’t it often true that what we think we saw isn’t really there at all? Can we even imagine attempting to capture something like that in a painting?