Recent encounters with art and beauty on paper, screen, or in nature.
The Great Silence
I once spent several months trying to learn as much as I could about what we have learned about the tool-using behavior of New Caledonian crows. I even tried to visit a crow named Betty, who was the subject of many of the studies I read, but it turned out to be a bit too much for the researchers to trust a message out of the blue from a human who wanted to stop by to visit a crow and so we never got to meet. I was reminded of Betty when I watched a short film, a collaboration between the artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla and the writer Ted Chiang called The Great Silence. It was originally released in 2014, and I came across it in a more recent article in Psyche. It shares (among other things) the story of a parrot named Alex. Please watch (and listen).
—Ricky Green, Database Manager
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Over the past few weeks I’ve had some very long nights that have afforded me extra time alone in the dark without children or laundry to attend to, and I chose to occupy those hours by watching through a pile of Pedro Almodóvar movies I’d borrowed from the library. I was in my late teens and early twenties during his stretch of All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education, and Volver, which I considered then and now to be peak art, but I fell out of touch with his work after that, and now before me was a fine opportunity to catch up and study the evolution of a once towering creative mind past its peak.
Being in the throes of mine, I saw all the signs of a midlife crisis in these movies: overwriting, underwriting, adapting some Alice Munro stories; not one but two aging filmmakers who lose their passion for filmmaking; even a protagonist who looks and suffers like Almodóvar and lives in a precise replica apartment that features art from his own personal collection. It was never not beautiful, but aside from one outrageous curiosity about a mad scientist who confuses romance for revenge, you can feel the warmth dissipating over the course of fifteen years.
So it was a surprise and a delight and a relief, maybe, to see his most recent movie, Parallel Mothers. It’s everything a midlife crisis could dream of, as though the clock were just rewound on his career by two decades: aspirational maternity, elusive ghosts, bauhaus wallpaper, and little waves of red painted into every corner of the frame. It may not be perfect, but even in its imperfect moments—even at the ending, with the bodies arranged in an on-the-nose embrace across loose soil—a lively and spirited kind of warmth comes through.
—Sumanth Prabhaker, Editor
I watched C’mon C’mon for the first time alone in a dark, nearly empty theater months after the film had been released. I intended to simply spend the evening with a good story, to pass some time that otherwise might have been spent alone, and instead discovered a film whose grasp on both the disappointing reality and the glorious sentimentality of living left my eyes watering, my heart open, and my memory often revisiting the cadence of this movie.
Johnny, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a stagnated but caring radio producer and journalist who listens for a living. The film opens onto him interviewing young people about their dreams and imaginings of the future. When his sister, Viv, needs him to care for her eccentric and wildly intelligent nine-year-old son, Jesse, Johnny flies to Los Angeles, triggering a complex and strikingly deep relationship between uncle and nephew, resulting in a cross-country journey that traverses New York and New Orleans. Through the delicate dialogue between these two characters, director Mike Mills captures the loneliness and uncertainty of life, layering in its social, political, and climate complexities, without at all sacrificing beauty, family, the strength of a memory, or wonder.
C’mon C’mon is a film about this “strangely beautiful world” and the textured lives we lead amid it.
—Remie Arena, Editorial Intern
Pursuing New Authors
One of my goals for 2022 has been to branch out in my reading. I have a tendency to get stuck on one or two authors and read their work from soup to nuts. A sci-fi/fantasy fan, I’ve picked up novels this year by Ken Liu (The Grace of Kings), Elizabeth Bear (Dust and Chill), and Tracy Deonn (Legendborn). After listening to author Tracy Cross interviewed as part of Black Writers Read earlier this year, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on her Conjure series premier Rootwork, coming out in mid-November. And it’s just in time to get on my holiday gift list, too.
—Tracie Butler-Kurth, Philanthropic Strategist
Reading for the Season
I tend to balance my reading by subject, author, and genre throughout the year, but there is something to be said for making space for moody, seasonal reading. By which I mean, in this case, reading cold-weather books in the winter months. One of my favorite such books is The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathanial Ian Miller. Set between the first and second world wars, the story follows Sven Ormson as he seeks adventure and seclusion in an uninhabited fjord in the Arctic Archipelago. I spent the bulk of my twenties dreaming of testing myself with a wild hermitic life—getting weird alone in the woods, making animal friends, and giving off enigmatic vibes during rare encounters with other humans. I easily related to Sven, first for his pull toward space and solitude, and later for the balance he ultimately creates with lent books, lantern-lit conversation, and a few unshakable relationships. Though set in a dangerous landscape and marked by moments of near-suicidal loneliness, this is a very tender book. And charming, too, in its wonderfully wry humor. I loved how quietly shattering it was to witness so many small kindnesses shared between misfits at the edge of the world. There are some stellar dogs, too.
But if you’re craving something like a gripping natural history account of a man-eating tiger in remote eastern Russia (and who isn’t?), check out John Vaillant’s singular The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. Thoroughly researched, the book follows a host of memorable characters and examines clashes between conservation groups and post-perestroika culture in one of the planet’s most unique ecosystems. If you want something more quiet, I recommend Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child for beautiful winter writing about a pair of lonely Alaskan homesteaders’ encounter with a mysterious, wild child, possibly made of frost. And finally, if you’re craving a Slavic historical fantasy and like the idea of sleeping on a warm hearth after galloping through frozen fir forests on horseback, try reading (or better yet, listening to the audiobook version) the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden. Preferably while shoveling snow.
—Kathleen Yale, Special Projects Editor
Julian Lage’s “Gardens”
I love music about the outdoors. One of my favorite tracks is jazz guitarist Julian Lage’s “Gardens,” off his 2015 acoustic bliss-out album, World’s Fair. Opening with fluttering arpeggios that sound like the way butterflies move, the song grows in complexity and volume like a well-tended garden through the seasons, and then softly wilts to a sleepy end. The song lifted my spirits when I lived garden-less in New York City, and it offers something like encouragement now that I’m a New Englander struggling to keep a garden thriving.
—Amy Brady, Executive Director
Seeking Art and Finding the World
Last month I had the honor of being present for the dedication of an unusual art gallery in a well-lit hallway in Atlanta, Georgia. This gallery in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta was being dedicated to my grandmother Lucia Fairlie Pulgram who started it in 1967 with the aim of giving diverse and emerging artists a place to display adventurous and multidimensional pieces during a time when most galleries were dedicated to established genres and artists.
Walking through the gallery and its inaugural exhibit, Wake Now My Senses, which explores our direct experience of mystery and wonder, I was reminded of the way that my grandmother looked at the world—the way many devoted artists do—in light and shade, in color and shape, in fleeting impressions and gestures. She was dedicated to the reflection of the world through the stroke of a brush or line of a pen. Usually the beautiful, but at times the tumultuous or painful parts of the world as well.
At the dedication, the new art director said she hoped that in welcoming people into a gallery for an experience of art, they would instead find the world anew. I left that day with a reminder to engage my grandmother’s eyes within my own, and to seek newness in the world. As the seasons change and New England trees display their own artistic talents, turning inward toward slumber, I find that task easier to accomplish.
—Donovan Arthen, Director of Finance and Operations
Gathering Together Again
Though the pandemic isn’t over, many have begun gathering together in larger numbers once again: plays, concerts, conferences, political rallies, birthday parties, weddings. There is both surrealism and a new tenderness in these congregations, an unspoken understanding that they could end anytime. But this ephemeral shadow also makes them more poignant and sweeter. At least for me. In September, I went to hear a famous author speak. Like many, I was kept company by books during the early days of the pandemic. Reading is a solitary activity, but even the most bookish introverts occasionally hunger for the company of others. A venue full of book lovers might have a different vibe than an arena full of Billie Eilish fans, but both ticketed events promise the shared pleasure of being surrounded by people who love what you love.
Abdulrazak Gurnah stood behind a lectern, a solitary figure with a glass of water onstage at the grand Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall—a Renaissance-style building formerly known as the Paramount. A longtime cultural institution of Portland, Oregon, “The Schnitz” opened in 1928 on Broadway for vaudeville shows and silent movies and in its long history has hosted performances by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Queen, Madonna, and Bob Dylan, as well as lectures by literary giants like Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood. I have seen both raucous concerts and subdued talks at this theater and somehow the frescoed ceilings and crystal chandeliers provide a fitting setting for both kinds of events.
Gurnah’s was no exception. Though a reserved presence onstage, he held the audience all the way through his talk. Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021—only the fourth Black writer to do so in the prize’s 120-year history. He fled his native Zanzibar in 1967, when he was eighteen and came to England as a refugee. He went on to explore the effects of colonialism through many novels. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Gurnah said that he found it necessary to write, “so that both the ugliness and the virtue come through, and the human being appears out of the simplification and stereotype. When that works, a kind of beauty comes out of it.”
A friend and I were seated high up in the theater balcony. In the surrounding seats, people quietly listened to Gurnah speak. There were nodding heads, mmmhmmms in agreement, laughter and deeply felt pauses, and occasional coughs that brought tension. We still had some of that pandemic fear of proximity, but we might as well had been holding hands by the strength of our shared attention. We were hungry for new ideas, for lucid accounts, for the calling out of injustices, and we were being fed. We left with a list of books we might read alone, but as I stepped out of the theater into the fresh night air, I felt we were in it together.
—Tara Rae Miner, Editorial Production Manager