Mardi Gras, Lent, and Turning to the Mystics

Lent is the perfect time to fine tune your spirituality, it is a great nudge to get us to do something, even if you do not have a great spiritual conviction and you just do something out of peer pressure, “everybody is doing something”. Maybe you operate backwards: do something now and your heart will react after the fact, whatever it takes, Lent is a good time to go beyond Instagram and Tik Tok and to explore your standing in the world, beyond your physical presence.

Most of the message and importance of Lent is lost on just giving up chocolate or alcohol or swearing. While this might be good and you might lose a pound or two, it is not the reason why we fast or stop swearing. The idea is to get closer to God which really means getting closer to each other. Who knows, push a little bit beyond your comfort zone, you might even develop new habits!

This year for Lent I am writing a letter to someone every day. Friends, family, even people that I might not have been in touch with for a while. They might not be deep, meaningful letters, but just a note to say “hello” and update folks. I am also giving up Instagram, to regain the half an hour (ok forty five minutes) of seeing people do stuff that does not enrich me one bit. Whatever you do, good luck!

Of course, the great kickoff party for Lent is Mardi Gras -in New Orleans, but Carnival in Brazil and in other Latin and European countries. This of course is a vestige of the Roman Bacchanalia and Carnivals. We had a great Mardi Gras dinner at school, prepared by Chef Philippe, our great chef, and his team!

The school band played some Mardi Gras classics, with a special collaboration by the Bayou Boys! It was a great evening.

If like me, you are in constant pursuit for atonement and you are still hungry for more enlightenment. I have discovered a great podcast, now that podcasts are so hip, on the Mystics and their thinking, their world: Turning to the Mystics is done by the CAC, Center for Action and Contemplation and introduces the listeners to different mystics and their philosophies. I am hooked and highly recommend it!

On yoga and enlightenment

Like most people, I had heard a lot about yoga, my dear friend Paco used to practice in the 90s! So, on a whim I signed up for a class at my gym. That was in Chapel Hill about seven years ago, and I loved it! Since then, I have tried to have a weekly practice, usually at my gym, first in Chapel Hill, then in Naples and eventually Madrid. During the Camino de Santiago, if there was a patch of grass after a day of walking, I would do some rough poses (a flow would be an overstatement). A tiny village I stopped at even had a little, hippie yoga studio, Project Brigid, and they had a marvelous class under the trees, by a gurgling stream, bliss.

During the lock down I used the Down Dog app, which is rather good, even in the free section, but like everything digital and remote, it does not come close to an in-person class.

Back in Florida, my gym is not doing group classes, so, missing yoga terribly I did some research and found a studio down the road: Anuttara Yoga.

This place is amazing, they have a huge patio and garden where they have classes. Classes have an attendance limit, we are all separated and apparently, they have invested in some state-of-the-art ventilation system. This is difficult to know because the room is hot, ridiculously hot.

Granted these are my first classes in a real yoga studio, as opposed to a gym, but I love the vibe. Obviously, unlike your local gym, a yoga studio is on a whole different level. While I am not a granola eating vegan flower child, I have nothing but respect for those who are, and I do love the philosophy, and the aesthetic.

Classes are an hour and half! In the aforementioned heated room. Did I say room? I meant oven. Although I have been practicing for seven years, I still consider myself a beginner. That, and I am as stiff as a brick, so I really struggle with my flexibility. My particular class is 45 minutes of Hatha yoga –traditional, engaging poses, breathing, etc. and 45 minutes Raja yoga. Contrary to Hatha, Raja is dis-engagement, holding your poses for longer periods, on the ground as opposed to standing up, it is almost meditative, if the feeling of almost ripping your muscles allows you to concentrate on your breathing, that is. The first couple of classes were tough, but with practice, I am focusing on my breathing and making the experience almost meditative.

For me, yoga is another step towards enlightenment, another part of the puzzle to improve, to be a more forgiving, more patient, wiser person. Technically yoga is the intersection of body, mind, and soul. I am working on it…

My girlfriend

The first times I saw Mélanie I must confess I did not pay much attention to her. In my defense I must say that I was in a bit of a rush and that in that very room was Francis, yes, the Saint Francis, done by my old friend Vicente Carducho. Nearby was Aesop, no, not Velazquez’s Aesop, but a version by my old Boston buddy John Singer Sargent, even Picasso was there. Ok it was a silly dish with a Centaur, which he probably whipped up between a swim at the beach and lunch at Vallauris, but still. But what really captivated me was my granddad’s old paisan Francisco, yes Francisco de Goya, he was upstairs in a couple of his Caprichos prints. Imagine finding Goya in a village in the middle of North Carolina, my mind was blown and I fell in love with Chapel Hill and with the Ackland Museum. My story with Mélanie came later.

Mélanie and I were formally introduced by a common acquaintance, a curator in the museum, in the Winter of 2013. After that I quickly grew to like her. We started seeing each other every Sunday. I would go to mass, then I would grab a coffee at the Carolina Inn and do some reading, and then I would go see her for a while. That was over two and a half years ago and we are still going strong. Our secret? when I am not reading to her, I monopolize the conversation.

After visiting Melanie just about every Sunday for the last few years – except during summer, I can tell you a few things about her: She is French, if you must know, from the South of France, Provence. She is a Marquise, so less than a duchess or a princess, but more than a countess or a baroness. This means that she is not the first French noblewoman I fall in love with, but that is a different story and it was a long time ago. At any rate, she is 30, she has been 30 since I met her, in fact, she has been thirty since 1789 when she was painted. Not a single wrinkle, that’s French beauty for you. Yes she is rich, check out that dress, that is heavy silk, with a stoat or ermine trim! She is artistic. Can’t you see her blue drawing paper? Where do you think the word blueprints comes from? Yes she loves to write, see the stylus in her hand? although the artist forgot to paint in an inkwell or bottle, or was he trying to tell us something? Hmmm. She is religious, her sash and medal means she belongs to a religious order, you know, for the nobility. She is wise, see the statue of Athena, or is it Minerva? never mind. Some people say she is married, but I don’t see no ring – and wedding rings have been around since the ancient Egyptians and Celts – go listen to Beyoncé.

Her full name is Mélanie de Forbin-Gardanne, Marquise de Villeneuve-Flayosc. Some call her Madame, maybe because she is nobility, but to that I say read the previous paragraph. Being noble and rich goes hand in hand with being a bit of a celebrity, even if she does not like it one bit. So besides the gossip that goes with being 18th C French nobility, and the painting, and being a “Grand Lady”, writer Allan Gurganus wrote a bit of a story about her, which, by the way is totally ficticious!!!

But enough of this superficial silly talk. Mélanie has a heart of gold. She was extremely well educated, she loves the arts and culture, and philosophy. Therein lies the problem. The Estates-General has just met in Versailles, ending up in a tennis court after Louis XVI kicked them out of the Grands Salles, where they were meeting. Heads are about to roll, many heads, literally. If you look closely, Mélanie has a longing in her gaze, her eyes are almost watery. She could care less about the painting and the painter, and the dress and the furniture. She has read Kant and Hobbes and Locke and Voltaire. She knows we can have a better world, but these Enlightenment thinkers full of Reason are forgetting a small detail: love. My Mélanie knows we can, and should, have a better world with everything that entails. When I go see her on Sundays she tells me all this, just with her eyes.

I can’t wait for next Sunday to go see Mélanie.

The 18th Century as literary hinge

When I “discovered” 18th Century Spanish literature, something that really struck me was what a critical element it was in the history of literature and how little credit it gets. The 18th Century is a literary hinge in the evolution of literature. While it can be argued that every century, or era, is a “hinge” era, a time between times, the 18th Century exercises as a flexing point in what has been called the pendulum of literary movements. Being the philistine that I am, I can only use Spanish literature for my example:

The ilustrados (18th C educated Spaniards), whether they liked it or not, were actually building on the shoulders of the Baroque, with its chiaroscuro and trompe l’oeil, which they hated. This, in turn, was a reaction to the Renaissance which was short lived in Spain in favor of the more mysterious and why not, fun, Baroque, more suited to the Spanish temperament (perpetuating stereotypes, the Spanish are a Baroque people. Disagree? Go watch an Almodovar film). For the Spanish literati, the solution to what they considered centuries of muddle was to build a one way bridge to the classic ancient Greeks and Romans as Luzán proposed in his Poética (1737). As much as the Enlightened writers wanted to, they could not get there without the rich legacy of medieval letters and art and everything that followed. For example, my man, Padre Isla (1703-1781), a precursor to the ilustrados, indeed goes back to the ancients, but he also relies heavily on St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and especially Cervantes and Quevedo, creating his narrative from a blend of centuries of letters. Consciously or not these are the foundations the 18th Century had to build on.

On the other hand the Enlightenment’s obsession with societal good which even led to the elimination of the novel in Spain due to its reliance on the first person singular, is the launching pad for the Romantic movement where that “I” is all important. Equally, the Enlightened enthusiasm for scientific enumeration led to the naturalists. The reaction to those developments will be realism, modernism and postmodernism.

In big bold brushstrokes there are the Classics, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras leading up to the Enlightenment, and the Romantic, Naturalist, Realist, Modernist and Postmodernism after it. How do I then explain the fact that my sides, arms or rays of my angle are lopsided? Well it must be taken into account that both the Classical and Medieval periods encompass centuries, while the last big three movements occurred within the 20th C. due to the advances in communications and technology, so just counting movements is not the same as considering the influence and repercussion of  those movements. This of course is taking into account all the differences in labeling periods and movements. No style is 100% unique, as one genre blends into another.

Thus, a solid grasp of 18th Century literature opens up an understanding to what happened before and after on the literary continuum. From a teaching standpoint, understanding the enlightenment offers the key to the past as well as to the future of literary history.

P.S.: When I explained this idea to my thesis director during one of our coffees, she liked it so much she took a picture!

My Chapel Hill

Sushi!

Sushi!

The Carducho (or Carducci)

The Carducho (or Carducci)

The arboretum

The arboretum

The Carolina Inn

The Carolina Inn

(delicious) Taco Truck

(delicious) Taco Truck

Did I mention Gelato?

Did I mention Gelato?

Mandey of Zog's w a broken finger

Mandey of Zog’s w a broken finger

The pool in the theatre!

The pool in the theatre!

Older posts might mention this, so please excuse my old age and incipient dementia. I want to tell you about Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, I tell people, is a village, a thriving, dynamic, diverse village, but a village nonetheless. It has the advantages of a village: everything is walking distance from everywhere, it is easy to make relationships, safety, $4 movies at the main street (Franklin St.) Varsity movie theatre, all this translates to community. On the other hand there is a thriving cultural scene. Just this semester I have seen: Wynton Marsalis with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Andras Schiff playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, L-E-V an Israeli modern dance company, Shakespeare’s Tempest and Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, both with a swimming pool built into the proscenium!, opera (UNC’s The Orpheus Diaries), an early modern Spanish, French and Italian concert, with period instruments! And of course the, for me obligatory Nutcracker ballet. If that was not enough, I have gone to a couple of fascinating conferences by top presenters, for example, one on Baroque Spanish Literature. And then there are always gigs at Zog’s, my favorite bar, that range from reggae to punk to New Orleans Jazz. Given my constant need for stimulation, Chapel Hill delivers. An example of how Chapel Hill fits me like a glove might be Sunday mornings. After my breakfast and coffee I walk to church which is always a rich a rewarding experience with the wise and funny Monsignor Wall. After mass I cross the street to The Carolina Inn, where I enjoy a nice cup of coffee in the cozy living room where I do some reading. Then I walk up the street to the Ackland Art Museum where I sit down in front of a painting to do some more reading. In fact I always sit down in front of the same painting: Madame de Villeneuve-Flayosc, a sweet 18th Century lady with whom I like to converse about the goings on in the Enlightenment. Finally, it is home for lunch, or if it is nice weather for a nice Rocinante ride to search for a nice lunch.

On another level, I have state of the art fitness facilities: gym, swimming pool, basketball courts, etc. There are nice restaurants, cafés and shops (being realistic, and keeping in mind that we are not in New York City). There is a planetarium and an arboretum, there are world class libraries. Best of all, I am so busy reading and working that what little time (and money) I have to spend, I know will be good!