Not long after my daughter Wendy moved into her first apartment, she decided to share her new space with a little kitten that she named Novalee. Nova, as we came to call her, was wicked smart and an absolute terror, and I’m fairly certain that my ankles still bear the scars of her nighttime attacks whenever I would sleep over. She has grown into a magnificently large animal, the absolute alpha of the house who still displays flashes of her former kitten feistiness on a regular basis. One of my favorite things that she would do was stretch out in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, prompting me to always sing a few bars of the Van Morrison song that has the same title as this post. According to Joseph Campbell, a dweller on the threshold, otherwise known as a threshold guardian, is thought to be “what stands between the old world and the new world of personal growth.” If we view life as a series of journeys, the dweller holds the key to our understanding the one that is coming next. We meet him or her at the threshold, and the experience we have during that encounter depends a great deal on how ready we are to move forward and how willing we are to heed any advice the dweller may have for us. In mythology, where archetypes such as these are often very black and white, the dweller will be benevolent so long as we are prepared and open minded, or very nasty if we display ignorance or arrogance. I’m not sure how much Joseph Campbell Nova has read, but she still spends a lot of time guarding thresholds, and I step by her carefully as she tends to still take a swat at me, claws in these days. Apparently I have passed her tests.
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?
In this past week, I looked at a number of articles and engaged in a few conversations that involved the idea of New Year’s resolutions. A lot of what I read recommended that we don’t set them at all, and the discussions that I had echoed this sentiment. And yet, without any resolutions, I admit that I have felt somewhat untethered, as though I’ve taken the first few steps in 2024 without a guide or an instruction booklet. I also think that I’ve come to look forward to January 1st as a day when I can press a proverbial reset button and start fresh on some things. Even though I’ve decided not to write down a list of resolutions this year, I find that they continue to creep into my head anyway. “I really want to stop using the word ‘just’ in a lot of my sentences.” “I should eat more beans.” “I’d like to work harder at being on time.” Hold down the laughter on that last one. Virgos are only late because we think we can do one more useful thing before tearing out the door, like quickly alphabetize the spice rack. You may insert an eye roll emoji here. All of this aside, the real question for me has always been why we feel the need to set resolutions in the first place. Where did the tradition come from? Apparently the Google answer to that query is that the practice dates back some 4,000 years to the time of the ancient Babylonians who made offerings to their gods at the start of the new year, which happened to be in mid-March at the beginning of the planting season. The Romans followed suit, but then changed over to the Julian calendar in 46 BC.