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Life Study

In The Zebra’s Friend I include a ten-line poem, “Portrait Artist.” For those who know my family, it is obvious that I wrote it for my youngest son. Although he has since become a painter as well, he is still “a mapmaker working in charcoal and pastels,” and portraits are what Carl does.

I wanted the poem to be brief and quick, like a sketch, wanted it to be about the relationship of artist to subject more than about the mechanics. Perhaps the artist is first a reader of faces and of hearts; and only then can set about mapmaking of any kind. The poem could as well have been written about any portrait artist. It could even have been written about the character Hannah Jelkes, played by Deborah Kerr in the 1964 version of “Night of the Iguana.” Each time I see that movie, I am drawn to the character of Hannah.

“Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon,” she says to Richard Burton’s character, “Unless it is unkind or violent.” I think it is Hannah, more than any other character in the movie, who sees people as they really are, perhaps from a lifetime habit of quick glances from their faces to the paper on the easel and back again. The portrait artist must possess a great acceptance and understanding of human nature.

About the artist for whom this poem was actually written, he has been much in my thoughts lately. In less than a month from now, Carl and his Kirsty are to be married. Here is the little poem, written long before they met.

Portrait Artist

All of your studies are portraits,
all of your journeys are those
of the spirit. You step across
landscapes to the far countries
you see in others’ eyes.
Their smiles or somber gazes,
places of joy or hidden hurt,
disclose themselves
to you, a mapmaker
working in charcoal or pastels.

Finding Machu Picchu

Let’s be clear, I have never been to Machu Picchu other than in my dreams, other than in one actual dream, a year or two ago. Before then I had been only vaguely aware of this place. Even “somewhere in Peru” would have been a guess.

In my dream, the church has sent me to Machu Picchu for a year to “live among the people.” I am just arriving, evidently, and have not yet seen any people, only mountains half-covered with clouds, which are pink, as at dawn or dusk. That’s it, end of dream.

Its name means “Old Mountain.” It once belonged to the estate of an Incan king, a sacred site since the fifteenth century. The poet Pablo Neruda wrote of it this way:

[Going to] Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul…
a resting place for butterflies in the epicenter of the great circle
of life.

In a National Geographic photograph I see green covered stone terraces, the old mountain and yes, pink clouds. A llama waits for the photographer on a distant hillock. I imagine myself approaching this ancient lonely place, only to see a glint of silver in the green grass. I look down to find a crumpled gum wrapper at my feet. Just see how my mind wanders. It is a fact, though, that twenty-five hundred tourists a day come to Machu Picchu.

There is a piece of music that takes me there just as well. It begins in a sweeping darkness which breaks into sunlight through the clouds in some high place at the top of the world. “Go to your happy place,” people like to say, imitating a psychiatrist advising the patient on the couch. We could do worse. However, it may be even better at the end of the day to ask, what did I see today? What did my heart say about it?

Making It a Place of Springs

As they go through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs. (Psalm 84:6a) It’s poetry, this verse. No surprise there; everyone knows that the Bible has in it all different kinds of literature. But now and again something I read takes up residence in my mind and wants to stay.

This wants to stay. As they go through the Valley…not of the shadow of death, this time, but of weeping or—depending on the translation—of Baca. The Valley of Baca. It’s an actual place in Israel, I have learned, a valley whose name comes from a type of balsam tree that grows there, which “weeps” teardrop-like resin. Human beings of all times and places know the shape, do they not? of teardrops?

I am sure that preachers as well as poets have fastened on the allegorical rather than the literal. I do, too, can’t help it–as when one of my grandsons was born and I mentioned to his parents that both the names they had chosen—Ethan and David–represented musicians in the Bible. “Mom, we just liked the name,” my son said. It was too early to know if Ethan David would take up the lute and harp.

Yes, I am sure that preachers, especially, find here that those whose strength is in God can live through a time of sorrow and make it a place of springs. Ah, it is poetry. In my experience, we poor humans cannot actually make a spring. Instead, we discover it, uncover it, get down on our knees to brush away old dead leaves and twigs to see bubbling up what has been there all along, the wellspring of living water—and rejoice in it and rest beside it for a time before we continue on our way. Going from strength to strength, the Bible says, in that poetic way it has.