Category Archives: Life

New York City Celebration

By Johna Till Johnson

New York City Celebration

The festival arrives!

People often ask why I live in New York. Yes, it’s crowded. And expensive. And even though the crime rate is way down from the 1980s when I first lived here, it’s still a city—with all the dangers a city brings.

I try to explain, but the truth is, it’s not the cultural richness. Or the wonderful food. Or even the variegated mix of people.

It’s that New York can continue to surprise and amaze me. As it did on a recent overcast autumn day: I’d just finished brunch with a friend and decided on the spur of the moment to walk the three miles home. I made it less than half the way there when I noticed that the density of police officers had picked way up. And then I heard it: Music, and a few green-and-white-clad people dancing in the street.

A few more steps, and I was in the midst of a full-on street festival, with floats, marching bands, music, and dancing. Apparently it was the 55th birthday of Nigeria (who knew?) and celebrants were out in force. (Well, technically, modern Nigeria was founded on October 1, 1960, but close enough…)

I walked the next several blocks with a gigantic grin on my face. The music was infectious, the colors brilliant, and the energy electric. And by the time I got to the end of the festival, my heart was dancing along with the dancers.


By Vladimir Brezina

A fire? Nothing out of the ordinary.

But a fire in a cozy fireplace in a New York apartment, deep inside a high-rise building? We are already beginning to appreciate how extraordinary that is, as winter is surely coming

Fire 1Fire 2Fire 3Fire 4Fire 5

A contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge, (Extra)ordinary.

A Civilized Way to See New York Harbor

By Vladimir Brezina

Aboard Bateaux New York‘s boat Celestial for a sunset dinner cruise


We’ve seen the Celestial cruising around the harbor many times from our kayaks, but this is quite a different experience ;-)

Cruising up the Hudson

Plenty of opportunities for selfies with the Manhattan skyline


There go our kayaking buddies!

Kayaking buddies

The Manhattan skyline in the dusk

Manhattan skyline in the dusk

… and round the Battery for more photo-ops in the East River

In the East River

Immortal Beauty

By Johna Till Johnson

Maria Radner

Maria Radner, 1981-Eternity

Among the victims of Germanwings Flight 9525 was Maria Radner, a German opera singer. She was a 33-year old contralto who specialized in Wagner.  I hadn’t heard of her before—no surprise since I’m new to opera, and have yet to warm to Wagner’s music.

But a commentator on one of the news stories posted the video below. Maria Radner sings “Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”) from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection Symphony.

It’s just under five minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite so lovely. Looking into her serene blue-gray eyes and insouciant half smile, and listening to that soaring voice, all I can think of is that although a deranged man was able to take away her life, the beauty she brought into this world is immortal.

The lyrics translate as follows:

I am from God and want to return to God!
The loving God will give me a little of the light,
will illuminate me into the eternal blessed life!

She got that wish.

I only wish that it hadn’t happened quite so soon.


By Vladimir Brezina

The photographer was pretty graceful, too…

Graceful(Fort Lauderdale, Florida, February 2015)

A contribution to Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge, Graceful.

Ice on the River

By Johna Till Johnson

Ice on the river

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me!

Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

This is quite possibly my favorite poem ever. I once memorized part of it to recite for Vlad’s birthday. It always gives me shivers, in part because Whitman was, literally, talking directly to us, “men and women generations after me”.

But this past February, there weren’t many “crested and scallop-edg’d waves”—only acres of ice floes, bobbing sluggishly in the current. It’s hard to believe that lively, open water will return–but spring is less than a month away!

Ice floes have their own bleak beauty, though, especially during a snowstorm. I recently took a walk along the East River and up alongside the Harlem River. This is what I saw (click any photo to start slideshow):

The Power of Art

By Johna Till Johnson

Washington Square Park 1

It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother. In the margin of the letter, he scribbled a quick sketch of what was so beautiful: a streetlamp at twilight.

I’ve never considered myself much of an artist. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to say I don’t understand the artistic impulse: I don’t know where it comes from, or how artists know what to create, even though I respect and admire the life-changing power of art.

But one of my favorite explanations is from a book written in 1938: “Art is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something… in a direct, simple, passionate, and true way you try to show this beauty in things to others.”

That’s exactly what I felt walking home through Washington Square Park a few nights ago. As twilight fell, and the streetlights cast their rosy glow over the snow, the quote above popped into my head. It was so beautiful I had to share it. With Vlad’s editing assistance, I was able to capture and convey some of the magic.

Washington Square Park 2

That unexpected surge of artistic sentiment made me remember how much I loved the book, and its author. The book is If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland.

When I first read it, many years ago, I found it inspirational, but a bit cloying. I have to admit that my perception was colored by “time bias”—that sneaking suspicion that everything in the past was quainter and less sophisticated than today. I mean, 1938? They didn’t even have iPhones! What could someone from that distant era have to say that’s meaningful about art in the 21st century?

Washington Square Park 3

And I’ll also admit that I found the persona of the author a bit, well, twee: A little-old-lady writing teacher out in Minnesota. (Never mind that in 1938 she was a vibrant and passionate woman of 47—the photo on the book jacket was a spry, but wizened lady in 1983, so that’s how I imagined her.)

Really, weren’t all women in 1938 conventional, domestic, and limited? Not the sort of person who truly understood the bold, transformative, and terrifying power of art.

Boy, did I get that wrong! If anyone understood life, and art, it was Brenda Ueland. She lived in Greenwhich Village for many years, married, divorced (back when one “didn’t do that”), and moved back to Minnesota to raise her daughter. She supported them both with her writing, which included journalism and essays. As her Wikipedia entry says, “She lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to.”

She was a paragon of physical fitness: well into what people would call her old age, she was turning handstands, climbing mountains, and swimming long distances. (And as for that “out in Minnesota”—it’s not only intellectually vibrant but physically challenging. )

Ueland’s personal life was bold and unconventional as well. The Wikipedia entry politely notes: “By her own account, Ueland had many lovers.”

That doesn’t even begin to tell the half of it. The love of her life was Norwegian adventurer and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen, with whom she had a passionate affair in the late 1920s.

Brenda, My DarlingThe affair came to light a few years back when Eric Utne (her grandson and the founder of the Utne Reader) published Nansen’s letters to Ueland in the form of a book called Brenda My Darling. Her letters to him have been lost, but his to her were surprisingly poetic.

Nansen writes:

“Here from my window in my tower, I see the maidenly birches in their bridal veils against the dark pine wood — there is nothing like the birch in the spring. I do not exactly know why, but it is like you, to me you have the same maidenliness – and the sun is laughing, and the fjord out there is glittering, and existence is beauty!”

And that’s not all. He also sent his maiden several tasteful, but explicit, nude photographs of himself. The photographs turned the book into a minor sensation, with some—including Utne himself—questioning the decision to publish them.  The deciding opinion, as Utne relates, was the Norwegian publisher of the book, Ole Rikard Høisæther, who wrote to him that “Norwegians insist on the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

That book thoroughly exploded any delusions I’d held. Ueland was clearly no quaint, conventional lady writer—she was a strong, powerful artist in her own right. And forget the notion that age necessarily means decrepitude—Nansen was one hot guy even in his late 60s!

Moreover, though he was known for exploration and adventure, that same sentiment enabled him to write beautifully. My takeaway from all this: Art is powerful and inspiring. Showing the beauty in things can be transformative.

And as I’ve written before, there’s a strong connection between the desire to explore and the artistic sentiment: Both have life-changing power—both for the artist/explorer, and for everyone who encounters their work.

That power is available to all of us, if we only stop and listen to that inner voice calling out: “It’s so beautiful that I must show you how it looks.”