It’s important to recognise when one gets to the good bits in life, when the dreams do come true.
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” So writes Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist.
Life’s pendulum will never cease to swing between the good and bad. Time flies during the good times. Those perfect moments can feel like a dream once they’ve passed.
The best decision of my life
This week has felt like a dream to me. This week has been unreal, in the best possible way.
It’s been a hot, humid, midsummer’s week, lending a sultry, dreamlike feel to things. I also happened to get married this week.
“Congratulations on making the best decision of you life.”
So said my friend Laurie Ruettimann a few weeks back when I told her I was to be wed. Laurie’s been married a good few years, so she knows what she’s talking about. I’ve been married only a few days, and I know Laurie is correct.
I don’t know if I’ve ever smiled more than I did on my wedding day. My other half and I finally tied the knot after almost two decades together. The day itself went like a dream. I’m not going to describe it in detail here, but every moment felt perfect. One small example: If you know me at all, you can imagine my joy when I got to see the surprise wedding cake my new mother-in-law had commissioned.
Beyond the Great Wave
This dreamlike week started with a pre-wedding celebration. I headed to London to visit the British Museum’s Beyond the Great Wave exhibition with my friend Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, before joining some more friends for lunch.
Beyond the Great Wave is the British Museum’s comprehensive exhibition of the late work of the Japanese artist Hokusai. It is an extraordinary, overwhelming exhibition.
Each of the hundreds of Hokusai works on display is exquisite. Each is masterfully composed and executed. Each is brimming with life, with magic, with joy. An inner life breathes out of each image, whether they depict people, ghosts, dragons, flowers or waves. The print entitled Morning Glories and Tree Frog is a lovely example.
Hokusai’s pictures of plants and flowers made me think of the Scottish botanical painter Rory McEwen, who could somehow give a decaying autumn leaf a moving inner life of its own.
No spring for me
It’s important to recognise that joy and beauty are around you at all times, no matter the hand life is dealing you at this moment.
A brace of self portraits (or purported self portraits) in the Hokusai exhibition show the artist continually radiating joy and life*, even as his body becomes gnarled and hunched in old age.
Hokusai’s life was not an easy one. For all his talent, poverty was a mainstay. A moving caption in the exhibition quotes a letter he wrote to a publisher in 1830:
“This spring, no money, no clothes, barely enough to eat. If I can’t come to an arrangement by the middle of the second month, then no spring for me.”
As harsh as his life was, Hokusai’s art never reflects these trying circumstances. Hokusai’s art is always quietly exuberant. His outlook on life was always optimistic. In old age, he was dismissive of the work he produced prior to the age of 70, preferring to look ahead to what he might achieve if he were gifted the time to hone his talent. Hokusai said:
“At seventy-three I learned a little about the real structure of animals, plants, birds, fishes and insects. Consequently when I am eighty I’ll have made more progress. At ninety I’ll have penetrated the mystery of things. At a hundred I shall have reached something marvellous, but when I am a hundred and ten everything I do, the smallest dot, will be alive.”
Hokusai passed from this world at 90. A late work in the exhibition** struck me as almost a joyous depiction of embracing the end of life and of giving oneself up with deliberate optimism to whatever might lie beyond.
The foam from churning waves on a lively sea takes on the appearance of constellations of stars. It’s important to recognise when one gets to the good bits in life. But it’s also important to accept that they – and that life itself – will pass.
The longest day
The day after the wedding was the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. I woke to see the first rays of sun of the longest day, the air around me scented by roses.
That day, I finished Art Sex Music, the extraordinary memoir of artist and musician Cosey Fanni Tutti. Towards the end of the book, she describes the uncommon simplicity and joyous serendipity with which a project designed to honour her recently deceased Throbbing Gristle bandmate and lifelong friend Sleazy came together.
Her description of this process put me in mind of some more words from Coelho’s The Alchemist:
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Cosey Fanni Tutti offers six perfect words to summarise how the universe helped her and her husband pay tribute to their friend:
“As if it was meant to be.”
* “Joy and life” is also, coincidentally enough, the Twitter name used by my friend Gurprriet Siingh. Please do consider giving him a follow.
** The British Museum’s text for the Hokusai exhibition offers the following words on this image:
“All is engulfed by the sea. Spiralling waves open like portals to another dimension. Here, Hokusai’s interest in Chinese Daoist philosophy may have led him to represent the ‘supreme ultimate’, from which everything originates.”