Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lion and Blue

Blue, blue, Brazilian blue. My one, my only love is you . . .

I may not recall with total accuracy this, or indeed any, specific passage, but to this day I bear the imprint of the text and vivid artwork bound together in the book Lion and Blue. My father gave this book to me for a birthday in the 1970s (maybe '75 or '76); he inscribed it with words I also can no longer quote verbatim though the emotion behind them still resonates. I was between the ages of six and eight, no more. The book, a fable of love written by Robert Vavra and illustrated with reproduced oil paintings by Fleur Cowles, was published in 1974 by William Morrow & Co, and was marketed as children's literature. It's appeal, however, crossed over to all ages. What I remember most is the deeply saturated hue of the blue Brazilian butterfly with black-veined wings, who was the object of the lion's love. I remember being mesmerized by its intensity, and the color has in fact become a motif in my life: appearing in the transformative wash of light that bathed me in calm as it passed through a set of stained-glass windows in the Musée Chagall in Nice, France (I was in my twenties); shimmering even now in a collection of antique cobalt jars and bottles. The color is a visual mantra for me, unlocking without fail the most profound sense of peace—and my first awareness of it was in the pages of Lion and Blue. The story itself is lovely, too. It dramatizes the expression "true blue" with its theme of unwavering loyalty. This fantasy tale—set in a jungle of tall grass, blazing sun, and flowers—is an allegory for true love, a quixotic quest for the Impossible Dream (perhaps this is one reason it appealed to my father, a lover of Cervantes and his windmill-chasing hero). Each animal, lion and butterfly, is destined to search for a metaphorical sun, the perfect center of a subjective universe, ultimately finding the "flower of the sun" in each other. Each animal has its journey of the soul—a journey that separates them—leaving, being left behind . . . It is a story about the steadfast heart; a story in which faith and faithfulness are rewarded. The book, without my knowing it at the time, held out a romantic ideal for life and relationships, as well as proffering messages about setting free the ones you love, striving to earn acceptance and love through patience, sacrifice, and the pursuit of inner perfection (in the form of a pure heart). The book, marrying verse and a visual equivalent of poetry, is a work of beauty, but also one that sees past the exterior shell into the soul. Now just a memory, Lion and Blue was perhaps my first meditation practice: an awareness of color, of the cadence of the author's language. I see my father's somewhat tight and slanted script, in black ink against a bright blue flyleaf, blessing another year of my life. I am grateful to have been gifted with a contemplative blue.

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