Arnold Sacks: A Portrait by Summer Pierre

Oliver Sacks: An Artist’s Tribute

Taking The World Into His Arms

by Summer Pierre

An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver SacksAs almost everyone knows, we lost the great writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks on Sunday.  His books were enormously important to me.  He had been on my family’s bookshelves for years, and had been spoken of with such reverence from my folks, that I felt I knew him before I had read anything. Then while recovering from surgery on the couch at my folks’ place, I picked up An Anthropologist on Mars and immediately fell in love with essays.  It was clear from the first reading that he was a man who was deeply curious and delighted by all he encountered in the world.  I never came away from his books without feeling that the world was totally broken open to me in a new way.

I will probably re-read one of his most recent meditations on dying several times throughout the rest of my life to remember how powerful the human experience is–even at the end, which Sacks described so vividly and with love.  Like every one else, I followed any and all inklings to his failing health after his announcement in February of his terminal condition.  My husband Graham was the one who broke the news to me and was not surprised when I cried openly upon hearing it.  I said, “I don’t think there is anyone I’d rather hear more from on what dying is like.”  Graham, without missing a beat, said: “I think he would love to tell us about it if he could.”

I think of him in these lines of the Mary Oliver poem “When Death Comes”:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

May we all be so fortunate to be so alive and awake to the surrounding world while we are here as he seemed to be.

Summer Pierre: Self-PortraitSummer Pierre is a cartoonist, illustrator, writer, and teacher in Highland Falls, NY. You can read her autobiographical comic series called Paper Pencil Life at her blog, Studio of Summer Pierre. This post is reprinted with her permission. — MAB

The Snowy Winter of 1918, New York, by Childe Hassam

Winter Caregiver Prayer

Dear Winter Caregiver, my Northern Hemisphere sleet-and-snow companion, you sliding on tiny, bouncing, translucent balls of ice in the Stop ‘N Shop parking lot, on your way to collect loaves and fishes for my dinner and yours, may you steer your way through the grocery aisles with my blessing.

In times past, I ran this errand for myself and my loved ones — able to run freely, then, though not during ice storms, remembering their preferences for golden raisins or pumpernickel bread, wheeling my cart past the lettuces (now a swallowing hazard), stopping in the frozen treats department to scan for sugar-free ice cream.

Once I gave. Now I receive. All I have left to give you is gratitude, that and clear direction, a shopping list printed with my wavering pen in hand, and forgiveness for any lapses in concentration.

Pace yourself, dear Winter Caregiver. Whatever the results of tomorrow’s biopsy, I’m stuck with the durable truths of life: that sleet falls in every New England winter; that daybreak rises from the bed of night; that night will fold me in her arms, one night, forever; that we all sleep, sometime, folding our bodies into the good earth with one last act of generosity.

— Mary Ann Barton

Editor’s note: I wrote this prayer from the point of view of someone who receives care, so it’s not about me. I’m still able to run freely, for which I’m grateful. But I can imagine a time when the roles will be reversed. The piece was first published in the newsletter of First Parish in Concord, MA (Unitarian Universalist) . — MAB

Image credit:  The Snowy Winter of 1918, New York, by Childe Hassam, American, 1918, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Memory of My Mother

January 14, 2015

Today I am remembering my mother, Lisette Berglund Hyde, who died four years ago on the day before her 102nd birthday. She loved being outdoors, gardening and walking the dog; baking bread; setting a beautiful table; visiting art museums; listening to Vivaldi on public radio. Lisette was born in Bjuv, a small town in the southern tip of Sweden, so I am marking this occasion with a sunlit painting of a breakfast table outdoors by the Swedish artist Hanna Hirsch-Pauli.

Frukostdags (Breakfast Time) by Hanna Pauli

Frukostdags (Breakfast Time) by Hanna Hirsch-Pauli, Swedish, 1887, via Wikimedia Commons.

Commentary about this painting from the Swedish National Museum reads:

To this day, Hanna Hirsch-Pauli’s painting Breakfast – Time from 1887 is still able to trigger feelings of intense sensual pleasure from our visitors. “We truly feel invited; it is just like our very own breakfast ritual. The chairs are waiting for us and we can almost feel how the heavy teapot tilts as we lift it.” The table which is laid with beautiful objects gives associations to family life and domesticity. The image shows a corner of reality, where the bourgeois dining room has been removed to the garden.

This is an open-air painting suffused with light. The subject is dappled with reflections that give the objects a suggestive shimmer. It is a juste-milieu painting, being at once anchored in the classicist tradition with its linear perspective, but also inspired by the way the Impressionists depicted light with colour. Like many Swedish artists at the time, Hanna Hirsch-Pauli studied in Paris and exhibited at the Salon.

The use of light, the lively brushstrokes and the thickly applied paint outraged several Swedish critics at the time. They saw her technique as “slipshod” and one critic meant that the flecks of light on the table cloth were probably the result of the artist “wiping” her own brushes on it. In the late 1880s Breakfast – Time played a major role in Hanna Hirsch-Pauli’s breakthrough as an artist. Already an accomplished colourist, as we can see, she went on to develop those skills in her portrait painting. — Nationalmuseum Stockholm via Wikimedia Commons.

Thank you for reading this post,

Mary Ann

Related post: Remembering Gladys, Remembering Lisette: Three Years On

So Glad You Are Having a Baby: A Gallery of Family Portraits for Thanksgiving

“So glad you are having a baby,” I wrote to our daughter and son-in-law when I heard the news. Our granddaughter, the adorable Ava, is now six months old. We’ll see her at Christmas. In the meantime, I’m thinking warm thoughts about families for Thanksgiving. Here we go!

Family 01 So Glad You Are Having a Baby

Family 02 Aart Schouman

Family 03 Ehnle

Family 04 Glindoni


Family 06 Besnard

Family 07 Wodick

Family 08 Sharples

Family 09 Wyspianski


Image credits

So glad you are having a baby: Illustration by Catherine Frances Frere (d. 1921), in Old Deccan Days, a book of fairy tales of India by Mary Eliza Isabella Frere (1845–1911), via Wikimedia Commons.

Painters can tell us a lot about families: Self-portrait by Aart Schoumann, Dutch, 1730, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some families look solemn: Family Portrait by Adrianus Johannes Ehnle, Dutch, 1850, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some families look relaxed: Courtly House Music by Henry Gillard Glindoni, English, 1901, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some family portraits are delicate and pensive: Madeleine Lerolle and Her Daughter Yvonne by Paul-Albert Besnard, French, 1879-1880, via Wikimedia Commons.

Here everyone helps with the baby’s bath: Family Portrait by Edmund Wodick, German, 1855, via Wikimedia Commons.

Here we see the artist with her mother: Self-portrait of Rolinda Sharples with Her Mother Ellen Sharples, English, ca. 1820, via Wikimedia Commons.

So thank you, dear artists, for all your gifts: Motherhood by Stanislaw Wyspiański, Polish, 1905, via Wikimedia Commons.







Thanks for Responding to the Survey for Rest, the Book

May 11, 2014

Dear Readers,

Last week I asked if you would help me write my book about caregiving, Rest, by taking a word-association survey (Want to Help Me Write My Book?).

Many of you took the survey. I am so grateful for your responses. Click on the REST Survey #1 to take it now. Feel free to take it more than once, as some of you have done.

Brilliant, springboard, resilience, woof, idleness, forgiveness, hunger, satisfaction. Why are these eight words important for a book about caregiving?

The words seem chosen arbitrarily, as if I’d opened a big dictionary eight times at random and stabbed down with my finger on the page. Which is true, in a way. I was following my intuition. Your associations to these eight words, I told myself, would be a resource for me in my writing, even though I didn’t know why.

Yet reading your responses, I know so much more about the gut-level process of writing this book for you. Your willingness to read my words has been such a gift to me. Your words, responding to mine, are another gift: sweet, soft, hard, unexpected. Brilliant. Together, we will make a gift that neither of us can make alone.

Only connect,” writes E.M. Forster in Howards End.  “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”

Caring for others can bring us closer to them and closer to each other, even in the raw hardships of illness and frailty.

“My father and mother-in-law died this winter within weeks of each other,” writes meditation teacher Kate Wheeler in her blog post, The Dying Season. “I have been imagining us as orphaned little kids holding hands by an open grave, trying to carve out a little piece of happiness for ourselves as we transit through this life.”

I’m in transit through this life, too.

I’m writing this book because I think that life is precious, rough, raw, and whole.

I’m writing this book because lately it has dawned on me that my pelvic-floor problem is getting worse, and surgery is in my future.

I’m writing this book because Elana Miller, the young doctor who wrote When in Doubt, Write the Truth, has a new post about her life with cancer called Loss. In this essay, Elana hits the ball of truth so hard that I’m still reeling from the blow.

Thank you for being there.

All the best,

Mary Ann

PS: Will you take the survey? Click on the REST Survey #1. Thanks! And Happy Mothers Day.

Dear Readers, I’m Writing a Book Called Rest

Purple paisley stretching out from yellow ground, by Mary Ann Barton. Inspired by Zentangle: 06/25/2012January 1, 2014

Dear Readers,

I love writing the Joyous Paradox blog for you.

Tonight, I’m so grateful to be sitting at the big mahogany desk in our little office off the kitchen, drinking ginger tea with soy milk under the attentive gaze of my stuffed-animal friends Kathybear, a venerable teddy bear, and Georges l’Oiseau le Chapeau, a vibrant plush hat in the shape of a parrot.

It’s so cold outside — a reminder that we’re in the Northern Hemisphere here in New England, where January is the middle of winter. It’s so warm inside, except for my feet, which are cold. I should put my shoes back on, but I like writing in stocking feet. Sometimes my therapist, Rebecca, sits cross-legged in her chair, leaning forward to emphasize a point she’s making, her shoes lined up neatly beneath her seat.

So yes, I’m writing a book for you called Rest. It’s a book of readings and resources for caregivers, a collection of pieces about finding the rest and renewal we need in order to be there for those we love. Or even those we don’t love. Or those we used to love but can’t imagine having loving feelings for again because the demands on our strength and attention feel so unrelentingly present.

As a caregiver who works with elders in their homes, I’ve found that one of the best ways to take care of myself is to connect with the beauty that surrounds me, even in the midst of stress and sorrow. I’m going to use some poems and short prose pieces from this blog, as well as offering new material. Some of the pieces will be refreshing and even sweet, and others will acknowledge the pain and hardship that crops up in life. I’m hoping to include beautiful illustrations in the form of public-domain paintings, as well as questions for discussion and writing prompts.

In this new year, I’ll be writing on two tracks: the short, week-to-week blog track in this space, and the longer-term, book-length track at my desk. I may ask for your help with ideas or images for the book, so if you’ll keep that in mind, I would be grateful. In the meantime, may we all find what we need to slow down, reflect, restore, and renew the spirit.

Faithfully yours,

Mary Ann

Image note: Purple Paisley Stretching Out from Yellow Ground, an informal, Zentangle-inspired drawing by MAB.

5 New Tips for a More Peaceful Feast: Thanksgiving 2013

Still life with a Pumpkin, Peaches and a Silver Goblet on a Table Top by Francois BonvinLast year I wrote my first Thanksgiving post for you, 5 Tips for a More Peaceful Feast: Thanksgiving 2012. It was a wonderful holiday, full of warmth and laughter. It was also a day full of sorrow, with one family member suffering from his last illness. He died just five weeks later.

Given these family sorrows, I imagine that this year’s feast will bring the deeper sense of belonging that comes from sharing losses. Because last year’s tips helped me to stay grounded and avoid eating everything in sight, here’s what I’m planning to do this year:

1. Start the day with a private song. Singing is a good way to bring deep breaths to the body and peace to the mind. I sing each morning in the bath. You can sing a favorite song from your childhood, improvise a tune without words, or listen to music that you love and hum or sing along.

2. Leave a note of gratitude under your pillow. Just take a moment to write one sentence on a piece of paper: I am grateful for ____. Put the note under your pillow. Then, the next morning, read it out loud to yourself. How do you feel? Are there more things you’re grateful for? Is there someone you want to thank? Extra tip: If you can’t think of anything you’re grateful for now, write down something you were thankful for in the past, or hope to be in the future.

3. As you greet others, connect with them by noticing their hands.  Look at and clasp the person’s hand, if that’s appropriate, or make eye contact and then notice their hands. Gazing at the hands isn’t as intrusive as extended eye contact, but the hand is very personal, so it’s a good way to become closer to someone. If you are alone, allow yourself to notice your own hands from time to time.

4. Smile before you eat. Sit at the table and look down at your plate. Allow your gaze to rest on the food. Smile. Inhale gently, letting your smile rise up toward your eyes. Exhale, relaxing all the muscles in your cheeks and around your eyes and your mouth. Look up and smile again. Breathe in through your nose. Relax, breathing out through your mouth. Then, as you begin eating, notice how it feels to smell and taste the food, to make the exquisitely complex movements of chewing or sipping and swallowing.

5. Before you sleep, notice one unexpected thought. Often, when I pay attention to my experience in the moment, I notice something unexpected. It might be an observation about myself, such as noticing the play of light and shadow across the back of my hands as I type and thinking, “Oh, my hands are older this year.” It might be a response to a familiar sound, such as hearing someone play the piano and thinking, “Oh, I remember singing that song together!” We can deepen our experience by pausing and noticing this thought, in a curious and nonjudgmental way, and sharing it with someone else, or just with ourselves.

May you have a peaceful feast.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Mary Ann

Image credit:  Still life with a Pumpkin, Peaches and a Silver Goblet on a Table Top by François Bonvin (1817–1887), oil on canvas, 1858. By François Bonvin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.