dinsdag 22 maart 2016

Cowards

Cowards attacked Brussels today, a few months after Paris, all linked to a single neighborhood in Brussels.

Until public condemnation and shame comes from within the community these despicable people come from and send the message that this is wrong, then we are getting nowhere. Criticism from outside does nothing as we have seen with Trump...

Thank you for all of the notes from the US and beyond about our welfare here.

United we stand...

Peace,
Robert

dinsdag 15 oktober 2013

Greasing the Wheels


This past weekend I attended a workshop at the Ho Sen Dojo of Antwerp called “Breakthrough with the Brush,” led by the zen sensei (teacher) of the brush and pen, Kaz. For the first two and a half days we learned the rudiments of Ancient Chinese calligraphy and some of the primary ideograms.

Without a doubt, this was one of the most intriguing three days I have experienced. As someone who is nearly 45, I believe that it is imperative to continue to try and learn new things in order to stay young at heart.

The danger of learning new things at a middle-aged stage of one's life is that one may become frustrated at feeling inadequate or perhaps even childlike. However, for me, this is the exact reason that I enjoy being in such situations. It has allowed me to see the world through new eyes, as a child, with the experience of an adult.

There is something to be said to be in the presence of a “master.” I have had the good fortune of having several “masters” in my life, with languages, with yoga, with swimming, and various other aspects of my life. In each instance, it is such a joy and honor to be part of that learning experience. To be in the presence of someone who has obtained such a level of expertise or craftsmanship is truly inspiring.

The most amazing aspect of the learning process this weekend was how Kaz would literally take us by the hand so that we could feel the Master’s hand at work. For each ideogram we did, we would go up to the table where Kaz was and then sit down with our brush in hand and he would put his hand around ours and guide us through the process after we had tried several attempts on our own. It was easily one of the most powerful learning experiences I have ever had.

In yoga and zen and other meditative and mindful processes, the breath is essential. For me, it was a deep connection to be able to move with Kaz in his breath as he would lean over behind us, taking the hand, moving the brush and the ideogram would “magically” appear. However, what was crucial in the process was to completely let go and let Kaz move your hand. It was not a collaboration, but a surrender to a “higher power” if you will. If you truly let go, and let Kaz, then the results were profound, it was as if a spirit moved through you.

As I wrote above, the title was “Breakthrough with the Brush,” and it was. I have been very stuck with writing on these blogs, as is apparent by the lacuna in the past few months. I have numerous pages of themes that I had jotted down and wanted to post on, but the actual sitting down process and writing had eluded me. I was stuck, profoundly stuck.

In one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig speaks through the semi-autobiographical protagonist about the phenomenon of being stuck. Being stuck can be with a myriad of things, from staring at a blank page or computer screen to not being able to fix the carburetor on your motorcycle. Whatever it is, being stuck is a very unpleasant feeling. It can lead to feelings of hopelessness, despair, frustration, anger, and failure.

It is within those moments of being stuck that our mettle is tested. It is within those moments of being stuck that we can either go into the problem or flee from it. However, fleeing from it is merely temporary and usually compounds the problem. It is a band-aide for a bruise, in other words, it is not worth much. Taking a break from the problem is one thing, but fleeing it is another.

I think that I have fled the problem lately instead of taking a break. As such, I needed to get to the core of the problem, to go deep within in order to get un-stuck. This past weekend at the Antwerp zen center did just that.

The process of zazen is one of the pillars of zen thought. Zazen ultimately stems from dhyana, or deep meditation from the Sanskrit. Bodhidharma was purportedly the first Indian Buddhist to go to China, bringing with him the concept of dhyana. The story goes that Bodhidharma sat in deep meditation in front of a wall for nine years. This was the origin of what has become zazen, or wall meditation. It consists of sitting in the lotus position in front of a blank wall and engaging in “unfocused” meditation in order to clear the mind.

This may sound quite odd, but it is a very profound experience if you let go and give yourself over to the process, just as we had to give ourselves over to the process of letting Kaz essentially become our hand. Both in the early-morning zazen sessions and when Kaz took my hand, I completely let go of be-ing Robert and was moved to a fascinating new level of experience.

My wheels had been stuck for some time now. It has led to frustration, anxiety, feelings of failure and just plan “blah.” However, letting go, completely and truly letting go and literally falling into the wall in the deepest stages of my zazen and feeling Kaz breathe as he guided my hand, was the grease that has un-stuck those wheels. In the former, I was able to feel my ego dissolve into the bigger picture and with the latter, to actually “feel” what it was like to be a master myself.

It has allowed me to walk out of my door now and to see a brand-new Antwerp and consequently Belgium, one that I will be writing more about now again that the wheels are unstuck. The concept of zazen meditation is that when contemplating the mountain in deep meditation, it at one point is no longer a mountain, but then afterwards, is again a mountain.

I have gone through a rather profound transitional stage in the past few months, and perhaps now, I again see the Fries With Mayonnaise which were for a while no longer Fries With Mayonnaise, but which are again, and ones that I now see with a new awareness and mindfulness.

woensdag 1 mei 2013

Live Music Capital

This past weekend I went to a "musical event" in Brussels called "Anti tapas," held in a cavern-like barrel-vaulted underground venue in the shady part of town near Anderlecht.

From the website, it looked great. I had great company, three wonderful Italians, and we had just had a nice dinner and I was excited.

But, then I arrived.

It was at that moment that I realized how spoiled I am from living in Austin, Texas for so many years. For one, the crowd was trying to be "alternative." What a joke. If you have been to an alternative venue in Austin, then this was Euro Disney in comparison. I am continuously reminded that as far as style or letting loose goes, Europe is about 20 years behind America. This was no exception.

I wanted to have a good time, but, I could not. As I say, the company was great, but the atmosphere was impossible. That is when I really, really appreciated Austin. On any given day, you could hear better music, for free, even on the street, and truly witness an alternative culture than what we had to pay for and muddle around in at "Anti Tapas." Was I glad I went? Yes, but only to remind me of how it can be better.

Yes, this is a bit of a rant, but it is also a shout out to Austin and to anyone that lives there to tell you that you better appreciate what you got. Because, I have been around, and for live music, it does not get much better.

Enjoy it if you are there, and go there if you haven't been.

vrijdag 15 maart 2013

Under the Chunnel


My latest translation job is currently translating an array of biographies for Northern and Southern Netherlandish painters such as Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordeans, and François Duquensoy, who despite being Flemish, was most active in Rome and was even called the greatest sculptor in Rome after Bernini. That distinction is quite impressive, along the lines of the French Surrealist poets naming Edgar Allan Poe as “one of them.” One of the recurring themes is that these were very international men, highly competent in a number of languages, something that is still very much a regional pride amongst the Flemish.

But, what is most striking is the concept of travel as opposed to today. Though many of them did “travel” to Rome, Venice or even, in the case of Sir (because he was knighted by King Charles I) Anthony van Dyck, London, it was a completely different experience. One of the things I love about living in Antwerp is that it is so accessible to all of these places. In three hours, on the train, I went from Berchem Station to St. Pancras, London, via Brussels. That doesn’t make most people here blink nowadays. I could have flown from Duerne to London in a fraction of the time, much less Brussels. But, with the Chunnel train route, it is incredibly easy and rather inexpensive, and three hours!!

However, translating these pieces I read about their travels and it could not be a more different world. When they would take a trip to Rome or whatnot, it would be for YEARS, not a couple of days. And, how they would get there would be through a series of city trips and stops, usually taking MONTHS to get there, not hours. Van Dyck ultimately did immigrate to England, where he died at his home in Blackfriars and having become the court painter of the King of England.

Another aspect of travel that is so different is the concept of the hotel these days. Now, because it is such a short trip for us in the modern world, and because of prohibitive costs and such, a hotel is a place you sleep, shower (if you are lucky to have good water pressure in Europe), go to the bathroom (if you are lucky enough to figure out how to flush an English toilet, kind of like jump-starting a Model T-Ford, you are risking your arm), and then you leave. Housekeeping comes a-knocking at 8:30 because you should already be out! You should be on the streets of Cambridge (which is where I am currently) and not in your hotel room, frittering away the hours in the English way (that was for the Pink Floyd fans…).

No, the modern world is to come over quickly, check in, walk the streets, take the photos, buy the postcard and coffee mug that says “Cambridge University” on it, and go home. In a weekend.

Antwerp at the time of Rubens, and largely BECAUSE of Rubens as I am learning more and more, was THE city. Sixteenth-century and Seventeenth-century Antwerp was a destination, and many of these painters and sculptors, if they were not born in Antwerp, came to it, and usually died there. Brussels, though close, was a major trip, and only a few went from Antwerp to Brussels, whereas today, a larger majority of people from Antwerp commute to Brussels, due to its seat as the capital of the EU. However, Antwerp is again becoming such a destination, despite its highly provincial politics.

But, every time I travel under the Chunnel, I am amazed at the ease, and it is such a jolt to hear English again all around me. I usually stutter for the first few times I speak here because I am always not sure if people will “understand” me. I am always surprised when they then answer me in English, not because of being smug to show that they know English, but because it is their mother tongue. This is not the first time I have written about this, and it won’t be the last, because it is something that jars my consciousness, and I feel the need to write about it. It is fresher on my mind because of what I am actually working on.

Although the streets of Cambridge are brimming with tourists, (something I just heard two locals complaining about at the table next to me, in fact), none of them, via London (only 45 minutes away), would take more than 36 hours to get anywhere in the world to get home if they needed to. This is not to say one is better than the other, but indeed, it is a different world. Likewise, I have met people from all around the world in Antwerp over the past few years, and we still have our differences, sometimes that are endearing, at other times hindering for getting to know people, but the awareness of the world is rather more mundane than the eccentric nature it seems to have had when travel was only for a select few. For better or for worse, I cannot say, but it does give me pause each time.

vrijdag 15 februari 2013

Cairns


Last week I was walking through the streets of Antwerp with a friend who has a very strong penchant and deep knowledge of gemstones. Now that sounds innocuous enough, but what it led to was a very eye-opening experience for me.

Why?

Because I thought I knew Antwerp rather well and am aware of many of the shops, boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, etc. But, what happened was that because of listening to someone else’s interest, we ended up going to a whole different Antwerp than I had been to, but all the while being exactly in the same Antwerp that I have always walked through.

In essence, I had been walking by some very fascinating shops for years and never going in, sometimes perhaps out of just habit of knowing my favorite places, or sometimes just not recognizing what is right in front of your eyes. It is the cliché of driving down a road and suddenly realizing you have gone a mile and don’t remember any of it because you always drive down that road and your “subconscious” driver takes over.

As such, throughout the day, little cairns of memories were placed along familiar routes, marking new places and points of interest that I will be sure to view next time and more importantly gave me the awareness to keep my eyes open for new ones.

Every city has multiple dimensions, layers upon layers, like a sedimentary rock, and as with Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, it is for us to dig through and find the layers and be aware of the rifts. Many of us, myself included, merely walk along the surface each day, and yet, just below, there are new worlds to be discovered, or like the theoretical pocket universes that could be all around us, but we must be willing to look for them.

zondag 20 januari 2013

Whale Songs


Last night after I went to see a movie I came out into the frigid Antwerp, winter air to catch a bus back home, though I missed it by just a minute, and the next one was not for another twenty minutes. As it was well below freezing, I figured that walking along the bus route would be better than standing still at a single bus stop, so I set off. As I was at the Centraal train station, the bus route runs southerly down the spoorweg (tracks) of the trains. Centraal station is one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, and has many times over been voted as such. Though I know that there are many main world train stations I have not yet been to, of those dozens that I have (and several on the top 10 list), Antwerp’s definitely deserves such praise.

Inside, its main foyer is reminiscent of a large Baroque cathedral, though with a lofty domed ceiling, so, like much of Antwerp’s architecture, it is a mixture of aesthetics. The train galley itself is nothing short of stunning, with high, vaulted glass and steel walls and ceiling rising far above the trains, dwarfing them to look like toy trains a child might play with. The space is daunting even more so now that they opened up two lower layers to accommodate the high-speed trains on the lowest level and mid-city trains on the second, while the more regional ones are often on the top level, so as not having to travel underground for any period of time.  

Like many major train stations, it originally was a terminus, where all the trains had to stop, and then later reverse direction to depart. The two lower levels now make Antwerp a mere on/off place where trains traveling from Paris can merely stop, unload and then close the doors and continue on in the same direction towards Amsterdam, for example. However, the top level is still a terminus, with enormous shock absorbers at the end of each spoor (track) in case a train’s brakes are not sufficient to stop it, or perhaps a miscue by an engineer.

But, it is not just the inside of the train station that is so impressive. The entire structure has just completed a 15-year renovation on all levels, and that includes one of its most impressive features, the nearly two mile elevated stone structure that leads all departing tracks to Berchem station. For the entire length of this route, the elevated rail system is supported by a series of arches and is capped off with what looks almost like a fortress complete with small towers every some-odd meters. It is something very easy to take for granted on a daily basis, but when you really appreciate the vastness of this rail system, it is quite impressive.

As I was then walking along, just reaching the part where the trains come in, I heard the song of the rails. There have been lots of songs written about trains, mostly nostalgic, such as Steve Goodman's “City of New Orleans,” bemoaning the end of an era. However, the real music of trains is the trains themselves. I am glad that my daughter has had the chance to experience the enchantment of trains, and though they are no longer the old steam engines, every now and then, one will pull into Antwerp’s Centraal, and then one can really imagine the excitement and awe of a train. The blast from a steam-engine train at full throttle inside the station is one of the loudest things I have ever heard. That, too, is music, not just the pleasant clickity-clacks along the tracks. Also, the exhaustive decompression of the airbrakes from the hulking beasts, waiting their turn to get back on the way. The whistles of the conductors. The hissing of the hydraulics opening and closing the doors. The echoes of travelers, commuters, and vagabonds. The indecipherable blasts over the intercom of inevitable track changes. All of this is one big cacophonic masterpiece.

However, the one part of this music I love best is the haunting whale songs of the trains coming in, with their brakes grinding and when the metal on metal of the wheels to the tracks hits a certain frequency, you can imagine these trains singing like two giant blue whales under the ocean to each other. It is eerie, and on a night like last night, when the rails were very cold, and the trains coming in began the approach, this banshee-like baleen opera begins, and literally gave me chills, and that was not just the freezing wind at my back. The moans and groans of the friction were sublime.

It reminded me of the first time that I came to Antwerp over 20 years ago (actually, the second time, but the first time to live here). I was part of a European Studies program for languages and literature and I arrived early to check out the town. As I was not affiliated with a school at the time, I had to secure my own lodging for the year. I had booked myself into a youth hostel in the meantime while I was searching. Though called a youth hostel, it was actually more of a half-way house for Northern African Muslims from Morocco, Tunisia, Tangiers, Libya, and so forth. I am pretty sure I was about the only Westerner there that week. So, it was a bit of a shock to check in, and whenever I told people where I was staying, they looked at me as if I had lost my mind (I get that a lot).

To get there, I had to walk along this same track system. However, in 1992, no renovation had begun, and Antwerp was a bit more of a backwater, grimy port city than the world city it is again today. 500 years ago, Antwerp was THE city, but it fell to shambles for a couple hundred years. Regardless, it was pretty grimy and impressive not for its beauty, but for its decay along this mighty railroad. I was also staying on “the wrong side of the tracks.” It gave me an impression of Antwerp that most of the other students in the program never saw, and at present cannot see in that part of town. Yet, what remained the same, was I was just as transfixed by the sounds of the trains above me. So, much may change, but there is always something at the core in which the song does remain the same.

zaterdag 17 november 2012

If Stones Could Speak


I have just finished a rather long and tedious move here within Antwerp to a new apartment, one closer to my daughter's new school and one that is bigger for her to have more of her own space when she is with me, which is important for a young child finding her way.

Although  have moved out of the famous Zurenborg neighborhood, epitomized by the Cogels-Osy Lei, and the community-driven Dageraadsplaats, both of which are dear to my heart and mind, I have gained things for other losses.

One of the best aspects of living where I do now is that I am nearly a stone's throw from the Middelheim sculpture "museum" and the Nachtegalen Park, where my daughter loves to go play after school. So, as with all things in life, when we lose something, there is a void, but as we also know, nature abhors a vacuum (as do cats...wait for it), so that void must be filled somehow. For me, this is a good way to fill a void, for it is a very peaceful place to go and walk and just let Time go by.

The first time that I went to Middelheim was exactly 20 years ago, almost to the date, when I was in a study abroad program at UFSIA (now part of the University of Antwerp). The coordinators of the program told us about it and as far as I know, not many others took them up on it. However, I went several times that year, during different seasons, and it was a very peaceful escape from the sometimes frenetic city center.

However, though the seasons changed, the statues did not. And, over the past 20 years, I have returned several times, and though I have changed, and the seasons, I still see the same, familiar faces, and of course the newer additions.

Twenty years down the road, it was a very special feeling to be there with my daughter again. We have been a few times before, but this time, it was in my neighborhood, and not merely a trip to the park as a destination, but was actually part of where I now live.

I wondered about those statues and all that they have "seen." How many others have gone there over the years, their lives moving ever towards the Autumn of our lives, and the statues stare mutely on at us.  What could they say, not changing, or at least at a much slower rate than we are, for of course, one day too they will "die." But, what would Rodin's mantled figure have to say to us who rush around all day, chasing our tails, only to wake up again the next day, one day older, and perhaps none the wiser?

A question of course with no answer. But as I was watching my daughter size up her photo of this same statue, I looked at it, and wondered what it was saying...perhaps, "I know you...you've been here before..." and like Shelley's Ozymandias, we shall all one day fall, but perhaps we can do so not in vain.