Still, Life: Zurbaran and Van Morrison

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For so many years, wherever I moved (I lost count around 25 moves), I hung a print of Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose on the bedroom wall, positioning it so I could lie in bed filling my gaze with its sublimity. The glass was chipped in one move, but I went on hanging it up, thinking of the cracked corner as a sort of battle-scar, a brittle badge of nomad honor.


I wish I had that print still, but it disappeared somewhere along the way, one of the countless objects I’ve left behind. I’ve been thinking lately—not exactly that I may have lost a bit of my mooring in the pressures and complications of the move we made two months ago, but that I need to refasten the cables, reconnect the anchor.

The sensation lurking in the pit of my stomach is hard to describe: not so much a gnawing feeling as a nibbling one. A faint alarm sounds, reminding me at regular intervals how much my attention and energy are directed to the many work obligations I’ve willingly taken on, and therefore away from that unnameable essence that is me, being rather than doing.

Like many writers, I discover what I think and feel by writing about it. I have many subjects (to understate the obvious), but what I need to write about now is less a topic than a reminder. I want to realign myself to the meaning of a life in art. I want to experience its renewal. I am thinking of this blog as the first in a series, each one turning on a work of art—painting, sculpture, music, poetry, film, maybe even cooking—that has sustained me in a moment that yearned for consolation or fulfillment or the reassurance of beauty, the presence of the sublime.

Zurbarán painted this picture in 1633. Art historians point to elements of allegory: the three citrons evoke the Holy Trinity, the cup—which appears to contain pure water—and the rose balanced uncannily on edge are said to pay homage to the Virgin Mary. Three hundred years and some decades later, when I stared at it for too many hours to reckon, none of this was in my awareness. I gazed into the depth of shadow where one orange rested atop another and felt the snap of awakening that carries the realization of being: in this world which also embraces the sweet fragrance of orange blossom, the luminous reflection of a cup of water nestled in its silver saucer, the lumpy, assertive rinds of citron, and the incredible skill of the artist in rendering all this with nothing more than brushes and paint, in this moment at least, I am welcome.

God willing, this will be my last move. I pray to be granted long life and to spend it on this gentle slope cradled by distant mountains. Just now, we’re expecting a thunderstorm. A dark veil hangs in the sky, backdrop to a thin wash of sunlight. The Russian olive leaves are clinging to their branches, spinning and sparkling in the wind. Outside my office window two robins are scratching in the dirt. Their feathers are puffed against the weather, balls of fluff on spindly legs.

All my life, I’ve envied those people who live daily with the felt sense of belonging. I’ve put in my time in therapy, in spiritual practice, seeking the devotion that will anchor me in the knowledge of home. I love this place we’ve landed. Its beauty and spaciousness fill me with delight. I am drawn to the people I know here, old friends and new, and excited by the prospect of those I have not yet met. And I know that I am a turtle. I am an outsider who has been privileged to step inside. Home for me is this painting, this music, this man who holds my heart in his hands. Zurbarán allows me to glimpse belonging.

I am listening to Van Morrison crooning “Beside You” in a previously unreleased take—the first take of the 1968 recording session, as you will hear the engineer say. For me, Astral Weeks and Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose have that same quality of supersaturated yearning, perpetual desire/renewable fulfillment that rhymes with the kernel of truth at the center of my heart: always coming home, never arriving. The music swoons its way into my memory, and I’m under the covers in one of those rooms—who can say what city, what year?—anchoring myself to this world with the imagined scent of citrus and rose, the imagination of cool water drunk from a silver cup.

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