One summer morning here in Barcelona, nearly 10 years ago now, I was seated at my easel painting when suddenly I heard a woman singing a “copla” or Spanish ballad. Her voice was passionate, sonorous, and at the same time tender, wistful. I stopped what I was doing to find out where the singing was coming from. Following the sound into the other room, I discovered that the woman was singing from her balcony across the way. I stood and listened, entranced, until the end. After she finished there was silence. I applauded and told her she sang beautifully. “Thank you”, she replied. “When I was a young woman I used to compete in singing contests here in Barcelona. And sometimes I won prizes! But that was a long time ago.” ‘Yes, but you still sing beautifully”, I said. On another morning, not long after that, I saw that she was no longer living there. Her balcony was bare and lifeless, sans plants, sans furniture, sans her. I asked the portera where the old woman had gone to. “Her family has moved her to a residence, she can’t live alone anymore, she needs assistance.” That morning all those years ago is partly what inspired this painting. She was quite elderly when I knew her, although you would never have guessed while listening to her sing. And in the painting, she remains as the young woman who sang in contests here in Barcelona. At least as I imagined she might look like.
The Balcony as Frontier
Wherever we are, wherever we call home, and for me it’s Barcelona, Spain, we journey through the days allotted us as best we can. We meet new people. Some of these people become friends, some stay and some leave. A small few become close friends, confidants, while others maintain a more distant orbit in our lives. We collect stories, anecdotes and memories along the way. We share things, moments, gifts of various types. Over the years in this flat I have accumulated a small collection of plants. I consider them as a part of my family. Some of these I have found abandoned in the street, some of them I have bought, and some have been given to me by friends. There’s Emma’s fern and Beatriz’s hibiscus. And recently my neighbor Mari gave me several plants and flowers, a generous addition. Mari and I chat from time to time when we see each other, normally in the early morning. She has the balcony in front of mine and her little terrace garden is splendid. She and her husband frequently have dinner on their balcony in the evenings and laugh and talk together for hours. You can see how much they love each other even after many years. I really enjoy seeing them there together, with their laughter and wine and talk in the evenings, they bring such life and joy to the community.
To step onto a balcony is to step onto the frontier between the external and the internal. On one side there’s nature, the unpredictability of the encounter with the outside world, friends, strangers. These encounters are sometimes warm and friendly and sometimes cold and unfriendly. There’s always an element of risk. But if we don’t risk getting hurt then we can never get the good things either. On the other side of the balcony/frontier there’s the interior. This too can be warm, cozy, light filled, harmonious. And it too may also be cold, dark, lonely. I believe that the external always mirrors the internal, that the outside world reflects whatever’s happpening inside. One reason I enjoy living where I do because it is a city near a border. Places near borders are often more interesting, more things happen, a confluence of cultures. A mixture, sometimes chaotic and at first confusing, and sometimes surprisingly fresh and new. Things get a bit wild at the border, and I like that. Among many other things, it serves to keep a culture and people vital, energetic and alive.
Remembering Señora Pina
Finally, and more to the point, this painting for me is a celebration of abundance, gratitude, and a blossoming forth into a higher, more elevated version of the way things usually are. Some version of reality which is just as real but lies veiled behind the quotidian. It’s a celebration of life and of all things good, a general “joie de vivre”. One morning recently, during the process of working on this painting, I saw my neighbor Mari on her balcony tending her plants. I asked her if she remembered the name of the old woman who lived next to her, “the one who used to sing on the balcony”. “Yes, Señora Pina.” She said, “And yes, she sang very well. But she died. Her daughter told me.” “When?“ I asked, surprised but not really so surprised. “Pues, a few years ago now”. “I’m sorry”, I said. In that moment I wished I had cherished this woman a little more while she was here, or at least listened to her a little more.
Wherever she is now and whatever else she did or didn’t do with her long life, she was here and she sang her song for all the world to hear. She had that moment, those moments, of truth and beauty which she shared with everyone, including me, and didn’t hide it. That’s all I know and all I need to know. And that’s how I remember her. Like Señora Pina, we all have a song inside just waiting each day to be sung. I sing mine though paint, but you might sing yours through writing, or gardening, or the way you decorate your home, or perhaps the the highest and most direct form of expression, throught the way you treat others. Not just your family and friends, your tribe, but also through the way you regard the stranger, the difficult people, they too are our brothers and sisters. And like Señora Pina, many of us, one day soon, will no longer be able to care for ourselves and will need assistance. If we are lucky, we will receive it kindly and lovingly. Sooner or later we realize how dependant we are upon each other. We are here for awhile and then we are not.But the journey never really ends, it just takes on different forms and manifestations. Perhaps Señora Pina has now embodied the physical form of a songbird and is at this moment singing in a garden or on a balcony somewhere. Let’s sing today and then tomorrow who knows. Let’s travel down this path together and try to remain open-eyed and open-hearted, at least as much as possible. In this way, we may continue to listen to and connect with each other and share the love we all have,each of us, just waiting to be expressed. That love, expressed in a myriad of forms and ways, is what we really are essentially and what stays behind after we are gone. Everything else is fleeting and transitory.
Thank you for your kind attention,
14 July, 2018