The day before yesterday, my teacher Rima gave a talk on how everything hangs by a thread. Quite literally everything. This is another way to say that everything is impermanent, temporary. Things can change slowly, over time (think of a Giant Sequoia’s evolution from a tiny seedling to a rotting trunk on the ground) or quickly, in an instant (as in a cancer diagnosis or a wildfire). Everything is in a constant state of flux, moving ceaselessly between being manifest and not manifest. Everything cycles through states of creation/sustenance/change, beginning/middle/end, birth/life/death.
My husband and I were at a second hand furniture store in 2006 when I spotted a painting. “Look,” I said to him. “I like it. It’s pretty, and it’s actually oil on canvas. It’s signed and professionally framed. And it’s only $20! Let’s get it for above our bed.” (It still hangs above our bed to this day.)
I’ve spent a lot of time with this painting, and I’ve really grown to love it. The color gradation in the sea, the sand, and the sky is beautiful. There's a sense of movement in the way the tops of the waves curl. A couple of years ago I finally thought to Google the artist’s name.
Herman Biemann died in 2015, but I learned he was an award-winning and somewhat well known artist. He was born in Germany in 1930. His family survived the four-day Hamburg fire bombings in 1943 but lost their home and all their possessions. At age 14, Herman was one of only 17 students in Germany to be accepted into a machinist apprenticeship program during the post war years. His training and skill served him well when he immigrated to the United States in 1953. After serving a stint in the U.S. Army, Herman moved to Vero Beach, FL and was one of the first machinists hired at Vero Beach Piper Aircraft plant. He took up painting in his spare time and his eye for composition and detail eventually led him to a second career. He was an award-winning representational artist known especially for his seascapes and had a studio on Ocean Drive.
The January Focus-of-the-Month in the Jivamukti method is called “What Now?” and was written by HaChi Yu. She talks about how with the new year comes the idea of “clean slates," starting over, and a strong desire to put the past difficult year behind us. Despite the shocking events that transpired at the Capitol yesterday, we have perhaps a sense of hope: democracy has prevailed (for now), there’s a vaccine, there’s a new administration taking over in less than two weeks. We may start to ask, “What now? What’s next?” We may start itching to make serious plans for the future (like scheduling vacations), rescheduling canceled events, celebrating belated milestone events. Personally, I’m trying to go slow and to remember that it’s going to be awhile yet before things are back to any kind of “normal.” One practice I’m working with is to try to think of “what now?” when it arises as “what, now?” As in “What’s happening right now?” As in what Ram Dass always taught, “Be here now.” I’m trying to incorporate more mindful moments into each day.
Today, I sat down to take a break and glanced at the painting. My mind wanted to wander off to think about the long list of things I needed to do, and I nearly glossed over it distractedly. But instead I caught myself, brought my awareness back to it, and consciously thought about what I like about it. I spent some time contemplating it and looking at it up close and from far away. I used it as what Thich Nhat Hanh calls a “mindfulness bell” — a reminder to come back into the moment, be present, and experience whatever I am experiencing fully. To be here now.
I love many things about this painting: one is that there are three different kinds of birds— pelicans, sandpipers, and gulls. For me, one of the best parts of going to the ocean is getting to see shorebirds.
I love the colors in the clouds. Sometimes I look closely to see how many different colors I can see in them.
I love that the plant life is textured—you can feel the ridges and bumps with your fingers.
I also love what the painting evokes in me: a sense of calm; pleasant memories of time spent at the ocean; a reminder of my love of birds and of nature and being in nature; a reminder to do what I can to care for and preserve such places of beauty. I love the quality of light the artist has captured—it looks like early in the day to me. When I look at it for a few moments, I often try to call up the sound and the smell of the ocean in my mind.
I love too that it captures in time a moment of another being’s perception. This view is what Herman Biemann saw one day—whether in person or with his mind’s eye—as only he uniquely could. Because of the way he painted it, I feel like Biemann loved the ocean and nature. Something of his soul comes through his work. This painting is a reminder of impermanence, too. It, like everything, is moving through its cycle of beginning/middle/end. While it captures a moment in time, seeming to preserve it, the painting will one day no longer exist or be manifest. Remember, everything hangs by a thread. The fact of impermanence when accepted and embraced generates gratitude. We become more aware of, present with, and grateful for all that we love, appreciate, cherish, and are inspired by because we know from deep within that everything is temporary. We stop resisting impermanence and change and embrace them as some of our best teachers.