A place at the table

The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Loup (6 June 2020)

Loup is no wolf; he’s just a bird dressed in a wolf pelt. Where did he get this pelt, and why does he choose to wear it? This thing is clearly not comfortable. The heat alone must be awful. Why else would he have stripped all the way down to his boxers? After that, there is the weight of it: his head bows under the strain, his chin scrunches into his chest, his wings hang low at his sides. As for aesthetics, this pelt is no custom-made designer pelt. It doesn’t even fit right, for starters. See how the ears sit too far back on his head? What’s more, the cut is not uniform. It bulges in the back, and one of the sleeves has a divet cut out of it.  

In Native American cultures, the wolf is a sacred animal symbolizing such things as strength and courage. Could it be that my subconscious artist self was encouraging me to be strong and courageous? It’s a nice interpretation considering the fact that I could have used a good dose of these things at that particular moment in my life, but I doubt that this is the appropriate reading. The garment is ill-fitting and cumbersome, after all. It is thus certainly more suitable to see the wolf pelt through a western lens, which is to say as an evil or menacing force, as an opponent with destructive intentions.

Water splatter for Loup (Washington Park Street, Brooklyn)

When I asked my shaman to help me understand the meaning of my dream about the red backpack and the clothes it contained (see Real work, 19 March), he responded by posing two questions: And if you are every person in the dream? If you are also the clothes?

Loup is not a dream, but applying the shaman’s questions to it helps unlock the truth that art wished to communicate to me: you are your own enemy; you have clipped your own wings; you are crushing yourself.

Understanding this truth was one thing; knowing what to do with it was entirely another. Who was this self, this bird? What did she need? What did she want? Love and attention and care, clearly. But how was I supposed to deliver these things to her, inaccessible as she seemed under the barrier of the wolf pelt? And why would I want to? I didn’t even know her.

Here is how God works: he knows our questions well before we ask them, and he provides us with the answers if we are brave enough to hear them. I painted Loup on 6 June 2020, but the answers to the questions it poses came months before. In March. On a Sunday afternoon, to be precise. The last normal Sunday afternoon before Governor Cuomo issued the executive lock-down order of New York City. I was walking up Union Street, in Brooklyn. At the corner of 5th, right in the middle of the sidewalk, was a big cardboard box. Inside, a dozen or so books. It had rained a little earlier that day, so the box was a bit soggy. The books were, too. Except for one. A little blue Nuevo testamento. Clean and brand new. Left there for me, it seemed. So I picked it up. I opened it haphazardly to read a random passage, the way I always do when I pick up a new book. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk at 5th and Union, from Luke 5:27-32, I read the following passage:

«Después de estas cosas salió, y vió a un publicano llamado Leví, sentado al banco de los tributos públicos y le dijo: Sígueme. Y dejandolo todo, se levantó y le siguió. Y Leví le hizo gran banquete en su casa; y había mucha compañia de publicanos y de otros que estaban a la mesa con ellos. Y los escribas y los fariseos murmuraban contra los discípulos, diciendo: ¿Por qué coméis y bebéis con publicanos y pecadores? Respondiendo Jesús, les dijo: Los que están sanos no tienen necesidad de médico, sino los enfermos. No he venido a llamar a justos, sino a pecadores al arrepentimiento.»

Did I need to sit down at the table with the bird and get to know her? Of course I did. Only then could I love her. But this would be easy enough to do. In Jesus’ words, she is the healthy one who doesn’t need medecine. She is lovable without even having to try. It’s the wolf pelt who was sick. It’s the wolf pelt who urgently needed the medecine. Without this medicine, she was only going to grow more hardened and bitter. She would fully engulf the bird; she would kill it. I loathed her, but I had to give her a place at the table. I had to sit close to her, and listen to her without judgment. I had to get to know her. Love her, even. Because only love would save her. Only love would get her to stop opposing herself, her true self. The bird. The child. The one God made and loved. The one who would help me understand the peace and freedom I stood to gain in loving my enemies. Even the one of my own design. Especially the one of my own design.

6 thoughts on “A place at the table”

Leave a Comment