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Rachel Cohen

Gray Bird and Buddhist Monk

Frederick Project: Guidance

This morning I woke early, went to the kitchen. Out the window, in the still-brown bittersweet vine, a small gray bird, its feathers puffed out against the cold. It was 31 degrees, cold for spring. At this time of year, we have many migratory birds that pass through our garden for a few days. I know these gray ones come around this time. Yesterday I was saying to the children that this unseasonably cold weather would be unexpected for them. But then, I added, where it is coming from or going to would be cold at some point.

While I made coffee, it sat there, very still.

After a few minutes, it began to move a little, preening its feathers, and settling them back toward its day-time shape. I saw that it had chosen the sunniest corner of the vine, and realized that it must have been waiting for one or two more degrees of warmth before beginning to move.

It had been so patient, holding absolutely still, and so certain. It knew to wait, and how to wait. Try to be like the bird, I thought.

What would be a painting with that quality? A Chinese ink painting of a bird? A Manet of fruit, where the soft gray background would be the color of the bird? A Vermeer of a woman with a letter, suspended and still? A Calder mobile that might move? These images, passing in review in my mind’s eye, did not have quite the conviction the bird had had. And, though I have seen some ink paintings that have the right calm and pause, I couldn’t find any pictures of them.

Instead I turned up this small statue. Buddhist Monk, (Nahan) made in Goryeo period Korea, in the 11th or 12th century. Displayed here with a lotus bowl also from Goryeo period Korea, late 12th or early 13th century.

The statue is made with a celadon glaze, incised to show patterns in the robe. A nahan is an enlightened being, in Sanskrit arhat.

I took the photos at the Smart Museum of Art, here at the University. I remember that I had gone to the museum in a state of irritation, disturbance, that I had hurried around. This was the only thing I photographed that day. I remember the sense of irritation as being that of domestic constraint, though I no longer remember particular circumstances.

I don’t feel irritable this morning; pervasive uncertainty, though, has created restlessness. Looking back, I see that I took the photos three years ago, around this time of year, on April 27, 2017. I am a little heartened by this, perhaps these are annual moods, not only pandemic ones.

My mother-in-law wisely told us, soon after we had our first child, that children are very irritable right before they learn to do a new thing. They are physically bothered by the incipient new possibility. Is this the irritability of spring?

Evidently, I am looking for guidance this morning. As perhaps were those who made this sculpture. The wall text, which I also photographed, points out that the features of the man were deliberately made to look Indian, a faraway person, who might bear special knowledge. Hands joined in meditation or prayer.