Monday, June 23, 2014

Jewels by JAR

A few months ago Alex and I went uptown, taking the train to W. 81st and then the bus that goes whizzing through the park then drops you, if that's where you're going, right across the street from the Metropolitan. It's always a wonderful scene: people ascending and descending the wide steps at all angles, the busy more-or-less Classical ornament at the top of the facade, the long gray form of the north wing stretching on a seemingly vast distance away. I love this place. To enter is to court excitement; you know there will always be something there you've never seen before. Of how many buildings can you say this: inside will be an occasion of joy, a wonder, something steeped in otherness or startling in its intimacy.

We'd come to see an exhibit of jewelry by JAR, an American jewelry designer who has long worked in Paris, and for whose work the word "jewelry" does not seem quite enough. JAR makes one of a kind pieces, each a marvel of technique, each designed to astonish. 

There were, first of all flowers, or portions of flowers. A single lily petal, two stamens with their little orange boats of pollen still attached; a red poppy, half folded inward as if slightly crushed,
its petals wrapped around a dark center from which one spot of jewel-light gleamed; a stem of apricot blossoms, something like Pound's "petals on a wet black bough."

The colors are unexpected, the technique flawless and often in service of hiding itself, of seeming
to be something besides the marvelous construction it is. A bit of grosgrain ribbon is turned inside out, so that we see mostly the black underside, not the shining surface of rubies turned mostly away from view. JAR is interested in that which hides, in the precious treated not particularly as such, in marvels barely visible, splendor just peeking into view, in drama, in wit. One almost forgets, moving from one fantastic construction to another, that you're looking at enormously valuable one of a kind objects, made for clients who may wait for years, and whose pieces come encased in beautifully molded boxes of blue leather. You forget because the emphasis is not so much on value (look at this huge emerald!) as the way that stone is hidden inside a cache of golden leaves, or serves as part of a peacock's feather, or the body of a twisting fish.

It wasn't a big show, the two or three dark rooms in which one moved, at the pace of the shuffling line, from one illuminated case to he next. But we couldn't finish it; we were filled up, after investing our gazes into these tiny theatres, trying to encounter each unlikely thing on its own demanding terms. They seem to me like no other jewels in this way; he have to look at them as they ask to be seen; they set the terms of the conversation. And of course there's a little while, afterwards, when a
piece of foil crushed on the sidewalk, or a bottle cap, or even a handful of dimes dredged up out of a pocket partake of a little of that same visual wonder: what are these things made of,  how do they come shining into our field of vision, where could we wear them?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

An ancient survivor invites metaphor...

Here's a splendid travel journal, in few words and vivid photographs, chronicling a trek to
see a lonely, idiosyncratic plant, the last of its family, an ancient survivor. After millions of years on earth, it seems to be doing quite well in the furthest deserts of Namibia. I'm guessing there are many readers who, like myself, may find themselves identifying with the writer's description of this plant: a deep root searching, only two strappy leaves visible, waiting for the desert fog that comes, now and again, to sustain. (Okay, I know the metaphor's a little on the edge of the melodramatic, but hey... the life of this plant seems to invite the imagination. And, dear NPR, "ugly" is far too easy here!)

So what if it's ugly... )

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Don't They Know?

Here's a recent interview with yours truly published by the terrific Buddhist magazine TRICYCLE. I sat down with two lovely monks, Koshin and Chodo, who've been my friends for years now. They direct, through the Village Zendo in Manhattan, a program called Contemplative Care, training volunteers in the art of being present with the ill and the dying. They are men of generosity and vision, and seemingly boundless good  humor, and through the training work they do they pass their gifts on to many.

Friday, December 6, 2013

An Exemplary Sentence #3/Marvelous Statements Concerning New York #3

At night, when the big Broadway lights go on, when the lights begin to run around high in the sky and up and down the sides of buildings, when rivers of lights start flowing along the edges of roofs, and wreaths and diadems begin sparkling from dark corners, and the windows of empty downtown offices begin streaming with watery reflections of brilliance, at that time, when Broadway lights up to make a night-time empire out of the tumbledown, makeshift daytime world, a powdery pink glow rises up and spreads over the whole area, a cloudy pink, an emanation, like a tent made of air and color.

                                                Maeve Brennan, "A Snowy Night on West Forty-Ninth Street"

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Small parable about authenticity and the imagination

A few weeks ago, driving back home from a residency in Florida, Alex and I were taking our time, poking around along the way. The South is old home territory for me, but I left Tennessee when I was seven years old, so it seems a remote world, and -- at least in the country, on the backroads that echo the South of my childhood, there's a certain enchantment or mystery about it for me, a sense of depth and of lost intimacy. I feel it in the scent of bacon grease in an iron skillet, in old foxed Bible illustrations, musty quilts, jars of buttons, fruitcake tins full of old photographs, a South quite erased along the highway.

Not wanting to let 95 hypnotize us, I pulled off at an exit in Georgia -- which seemed to me the most richly quirky of the Southern states we passed through this time, as well as the most friendly and open -because there was an antique store in an outlet mall by the road. The Southern Picker, it's called, and the place was wonderfully stuffed with a bounty of finds, from Buddhas to old whiskey jugs collaged with buttons,  folk ceramics, odd bits of furniture, a stuffed squirrel, framed photographs of somebody's glum ancestors. (Okay, I'm not sure these particular things were actually there, but you get the idea.) There was a pleasant sense of both incipient chaos and a discerning eye,  a combination I like.

A black portfolio caught my eye; when I opened it, there was a page or two of photocopied text at the front, which I ignored, drawn to the images in their plastic sleeves. Alex came over, and we knelt down and turned the pages together. These were amazing: prints from the 30s and 40s, all signed by the same artist, African-American presumably to judge by the subject matter, especially of the earlier images here, WPA-style woodblocks or linocuts of black women and men, often frankly sexual, beautifully stylized. Images of work and prayer and song, and then as we turned the pages a new set of images, more urban -- Chicago? then New York for certain then Europe. A narrative began to emerge, an artist traveling from the South toward greater possibilities, absorbing influences from German Expressionism, American scene painters like Reginald Marsh, elegantly stylized illustrators like Rockwell Kent. In fact, these images of rowing men looked a LOT like Kent's work -- were they inspired by his edition of Moby Dick? The stylistic variety was a little dizzying, and I started to wonder if this was the work of a skillful printmaker who never quite found his own way, but kept adapting practicing the styles around him. It was a thick portfolio, and the work was often beautiful, and we found ourselves wondering, as we came to the end of it,  how this man could have such a rich, wide-ranging life, and who was he?

Which sent us back to the beginning, to the typed page I'd skipped over before. The artist whose name was pencilled beside a date at the bottom of each page never existed; he was a fiction concocted by a forger, who'd lifted images from a range of artists (Kent and Marsh among them), developed a story about how he's come to possess the artist's work, and then marketed prints to dealers around the country with some success, until the deception came to light. The prints, which had been three hundred each a few years back, where now thirty dollars.

We found ourselves going back into the portfolio, re-reading the images with this new information. It struck me that they were no less interesting; replacing the narrative of how this struggling black artist had found his way in the wide world with the narrative of how a white forger had concocted this portfolio and the life it seemed to represent was equally engaging. We had imagined the original story as we first looked at the collection of prints, just as the forger had wanted us to do, and we could imagine the second story just as well.  This is perhaps a parable about authenticity, about how, at least when it comes to pleasure, it may not matter so much, but also a story about the imagination, which doesn't discern between the real and the false, since for the imaginative faculty all is invented, elaborated, made into a tale.

Now we own three of the prints: a Deco-looking cityscape, a crowded and raucous image of people going out clubbing in Times Square, and an angular figure rowing a boat alone under a sky full of stars. I couldn't really have afforded the real thing, but the handsome fakes are well within my budget, and they come with an additional layer of story, in case anyone asks.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sky Lanterns

You'll notice that I have not titled this post "On Turning Sixty." The title I've chosen is a small act of avoidance instead, or maybe a way of sidling up to my subject. Or a nod to the reader? Would I want to plunge into "On Turning Sixty"? It's been a long time coming, this year, and so I'll allow myself a while to come closer and back away, creep up to the edge and then stand back and reconsider.

Rounding a new decade feels momentous, especially as that first digit clicks higher. When I turned forty I wasn't at all bothered about it; I didn't, in truth, have much time to think about it, because we were in the grip of the epidemic then, my life entirely shaped by my lover's illness and the wildfire crisis around us. At fifty, I felt stronger than I ever had, and absorbed in my work as a writer and teacher, and if it was a little startling to find myself suddenly at the half-century mark, I didn't spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. 

But sixty has been looming on my horizon for a while now. I wish that I could say I haven't given the number power. Let me hasten to say I know sixty doesn't mean what it used to, and that plenty of the most vital people I know, those compelling ones most engaged in what they're doing, are in their sixties, or older. I don't especially want to be young again, and I don't find that I am attracted to younger men per se, or that I've fallen into that general category of invisibility older people, and perhaps especially older gay men, fear is their lot. No way.

But the fact remains that all my life sixty has been a demarcation point, a line in the proverbial sands of time, and when I try to visualize a person at sixty what comes to me are received images, old news. I suspect I'll be struggling with this for a bit. Five years ago, when I was a guest at Stanford, I wandered into a thrift shop in a neighboring town and found a sweater I liked, a copy of a vintage black pullover with a nice coppery stripe around the collar. When I took it up the counter, the woman behind the cash register said, "Would you like the senior discount?" I imagine my face crumpled a bit, because she immediately said, "You only have to be 55," and then I found myself fighting back tears. It's a little theatre of mortality, that sort of moment. It asks you to attend to the cumulative changes in your own body, to the odd experience of  that current that seems barely to move at all and then -- as a perception so universal as to constitute a cliche of aging goes --  suddenly there you are. My sister just wrote this to me in a birthday card: I work up one day and I was old, how did that happen?

My sister is 70. That little four-word sentence feels so unlikely to me.  I write it and immediately I am on the school playground in Tucson, in 1962; my sister has come for a visit, with her two very young children, and this morning early they have gone back home to Tennessee. Under the wide desert sky with its unshielded sun in the radiant blue, I am suddenly filled up with her absence. I am a fourth grader at recess, and she's a young mother, and though we share much in her bodies and in our language and knowledge she's nowhere near. That feels just as real to me as this moment, when I am sitting across the table from my lover, he at his laptop and me at mine, the dogs asleep on the couch, one of them whistling a little in his dream, and my sister far away, in Las Vegas, an old woman now. 

Alex and I have been talking about an addition we'd like to make to this house, to make the tiny kitchen a little bigger, a version of a Philip Johnson-style glass box from which we could look out at the garden, the autumn sky unveiling as the leaves fall, the astonishing moonlight here that some nights seems a white substance, a solid occupying every unshadowed space. Just today I thought about the kitchen, and found myself wondering if there's time to make the change. I don't think I have ever thought that way before, not quite so directly. How many more books will I write? I will see my beautiful dogs grow old, too -- I know I have that much time.

But I don't mean for this to feel saturated in self-pity; the motion through time is the lot every person and therefore you can't completely lament it without feeling self-indulgent. Before the birthday, I felt as if I were clenching a bit, bracing for the day, When it arrived, I thought I'd do things that would shape or predict what I might be doing during the year ahead, but in truth I pretty much slept the day away, unable to lift my attention toward some brighter things. But late in the afternoon the weight started to lift. Alex and I were going to an art opening, and he'd invited some neighbors over for drinks after. All a convivial and cheering time, and once it was dark two of our friends  came with us to a deserted bay beach for a thrilling (and illegal) celebration. We launched five "sky lanterns", also known as fire balloons -- a gift from Alex --  out over the dark water, one at a time, one for each decade of my life thus far.  Two of us would hold the fragile construction of colored paper and bamboo steady, while another lit the wax-soaked paper square beneath, and as the flames took the hot air released would fill the empty paper sack, and soon it would begin to tug upward at our hands. Released, it would go flying up into the night in a great rush, the fueling flame below the bell of  orange or green or yellow paper like a burning skirt. How wonderful to watch it spring to life and sail high, safely out over the dark water. I felt i'd been lifted up out of my low place, newly eager to witness the arc of the new decade,

The next day I woke feeling pretty much the same way; an interest, a curiosity, was growing where the sadness had been. I can't say I am fine with the motion of time; who among us could honestly claim that? A Buddhist saint, or one who believed the best way through this world was to get it over with in favor of the next. I was appalled, a week or so later, to be hit with the bald thought that in ten years I'd be seventy. Ten years seems like no time.

But then. So many I knew died in the plague years; so many never had the time I've had already, much less the time to come. And Eileen, a lovely acquaintance here in The Springs died yesterday, in her midfities, of cancer -- a bright spirit who'd have brought her characteristic inventiveness and joy to decades more. Something like what I hope to be doing myself, though my guess is you don't get to go there without at least a bit of self-mourning. Is it particularly difficult for gay men, or perhaps for people of my generation in general, to come to terms with our situation in time? Or perhaps for people without children or grandchildren? Is it just as hard for everybody? Whatever the case, my work's the same: to be here with my eyes open as wide as possible. To remember Galway Kinnell's essential "Prayer":

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.