Monday, December 24, 2012

Imaginary Exhibits: Happy Holidays

No matter what your beliefs, winter is a time of cold and darkness*. Festivals of light in times of dark are good for the soul. So too is coming together, celebrating, saying prayers and thanks, thinking of renewal and new things sprouting up from the old, and making excuses to be generous, kind, and open-hearted...

May merriment pervade your darkest days and keep you warm through the cold, friends, the days of black branches and the nights of bitter ice (spiritual or physical, and quite often both).

May the universe heap blessings on your heads and fill your nights with lamp-like stars and starry lamps.

And yes, one day I will dedicate an exhibition to festivals of lights. I just need to finish this eggnog first...

*Unless you live in Australia, like a large percentage of my family. But the metaphor holds. Or at least we can pretend it holds, because it's the f!@&ing holidays and you should be nice to me.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Museum Musings: Some Sentimental Claptrap

It's been an emotionally overwhelming week. "Fraught" is a good word. There's been a lot of horrible, senseless death, and I have been weeping over that, and the things we don't and can't talk about, about the fear and the anger and the frenzy, and gun control, already, and mental health and equations of masculinity with violence, and all of the dark, brutal, important, necessary conversations we need to be having, and and and. And I'm not going to use this blog as a platform to talk about those things. That's not what it's for.

I am going to use this blog to talk about the experience of joy in the face of tragedy and horror. That is what it's for.

There's this thing that happens to me when shit gets really dark. I want very much to make a point of sharing reminders that the world is not inherently and absolutely a bitter pit of suffering precisely at the moments when it most feels like maybe that's exactly what it is. I start to write about kindness, and beauty, and love. And I always hesitate. My vision gets blurry. And the smog before my eyes coalesces into words whose letters manage to convey withering, belittling scorn in the very essence of their italics. They say something like fuck that namby-pamby nicey-nice touchy-feely New Age sentimental claptrap.

I get embarrassed. (I blush easily.) My ears go hot. I wonder what kind of searing, screaming privilege enables me to think that I have any right to talk about how life is very nice really when there are millions of people suffering in ways I can't even imagine. I feel like a clueless idiot who has no idea how the world really works.

And then I post that shit anyway, because fuck that noise. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Museum Musings: Novel Snippets

This morning's work on my ongoing novel, A Fool For God, a book about the delicate balance between doubt and faith in the experience of wonder. I woke up thinking about the astonishing painter Remedios Varo, with whom Lilya has an as-yet-undetermined connection. I'm not sure yet how I feel about threading Varo into my book this way - she was a very real, very important woman and I don't want to steal her life. Maybe I can justify it as having a Borgesian moment -- maybe. I'm not including any of Varo's paintings in this post, firstly because none of them are out of copyright and secondly because I don't want to give away the references, but you should check out her brilliant, beautiful, wild paintings here and trust me that the photos I am using convey, at least some of the spirit or aura of her way of seeing the world.

Baths of Lady María de Padilla, Alcázar of Seville
By ivan m v (Baños de Doña María de Padilla)
[CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Outside the café it had grown dark, and the streetlamps left their bruised light all over the walls. The clouds were a dullness above. Lilya walked, and looked. Everything changes color after sundown. Green and blue vanish, and the world becomes iron colors, rust and dying lilac and dry bone. Sunlight is impossible to imagine in its absence. At night things become opaque. The transparency, the lucidity, the lightness of day becomes dreamlike, a figment. The streets were silent as she walked, and more dead than the moon. The mountains of the moon are austere and sublime; empty streets are not even lonely, but flat, solid. She saw herself from above: a labyrinth of narrow orange walls with no minotaur. Nothing at all, not even bones. People asleep in doorways. No myth there, no secret meaning. The world presented itself to her eye as impermeable.

She held herself alert to shadows and quick footsteps, vibrating with the gravitational sensitivity of women who walk alone – who disturbs my orbit? – and it left a black tea of resentment under her tongue. Without the threat, the constant complex sine and cosine of danger and her anger at the looming fear of danger, she thought she might see mysteries instead. She was watchful and furious at having to watch, secretly certain she was missing a hundred holy sigils hidden in the shadows. A fleet of jaunty bandits flying by in frock coats, turned by suspicion into a flutter of starlings. A shadow casting a man on the steps of the bank building. A woman feeding the moon through her window. The alchemical transmutation of the night she could not see because it is impossible to look for the hidden properties of matter and still stay safe in the dark.

She slammed the door of her house with some vehemence. Inside, she remembered she hadn’t done the dishes. The dim shapes of the walls bent down. For a brief flash before her eyes adjusted the rooms swam like twilight and the doorways showed the curved shapes of distant trees, and the leaves were blowing blew in to the warm lamplight like a cat crouching at her feet and dragonflies came from the cracks in the walls. Her eyes adjusted quite against her will, too quickly. The house was just her house, the furniture slumped and ordinary. She squinted, but she could not call it back, and the walls were almost mocking. After a moment her vision was so normal she found she couldn’t manage to imagine what she had even seen. She did the dishes, violently, and stared furiously out the window into the dark.

Double staircases in Grazer Burg, Styria, Austria
By (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0]
via Wikimedia Commons
Later she called George, but he wasn’t there. She hesitated after the beep and then hung up. She sat with the phone in her hand and thought idly about someone breaking into her house and murdering her, nothing left of her but that tremulous breath on the end of the line. She wondered if she could talk her way out of being murdered. She wondered if it would hurt. She was startled when raindrops struck the glass in front of her, but not unpleasantly. She threw the window open and the smell of wet pavement rose up to her, a stony, musky incense. She wondered what was closer to reality, murder or the smell of the rain.

It pattered briskly on the pavement; the night came alive outside her window. A light like wet oranges crept into the kitchen. All around she could feel the rain, surrounding the apartment like a silver and saffron veil. She sat and thought about bringing her easel into the kitchen. She didn’t want to move. After a while she reached out and lit a candle in the middle of the table. The rain hammered, and she imagined a wind coming in and whirling up the tablecloth, stirring up the dishes and the apples and pomegranates and sending them into orbit around the flame.

The phone rang under her hand; the rain crackled. It was George. She felt like singing down the line to him. He wanted to have dinner. She hung up and listened to the glad clamor of the air, and her heart leaped madly as a deer.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Imaginary Exhibits: Secret Stairways to the Sacred

At the top of the steps, a minotaur? A play? Remedios Varo?
By gutter (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
An unexpected stairwell is always an invitation. Better to go up than down. In the dream museum, there is always a hidden flight of steps. Half-lit, beckoning, a dim lamp of possibility hanging just beyond the turn. Curved pathways are good for mystery, but steps that disappear around a bend are better; there is more revelation in the ascent than the descent, and we are more prone to awe when we are looking up. To discover a hidden stair is a delight -- to suffer the delicate suffusion of curiosity and adventure, the possibility that the stairway is forbidden, or goes nowhere, to someone's house or to some boring offices, and the faint suppressed twinge of longing to be let, at last, to see behind the scenes. Not into the prop-room, or the straight-armed forest of the struts holding up the sets, but into the heart of the mysteries, the proof that places hold wonders behind their wooden masks. So this stair leads higher, always just bending out of sight, and at the end of it -- something you think perhaps you weren't supposed to see, and yet exists, of course, for you alone. A balcony over a ballroom where the elements waltz in their feathers of lead and gold; a tiny, shining garden with walls that drip and whisper; a white chapel with walls of chalk where you can hear your heartbeat echo and reverberate, an amplified, insistent thrumming; a mystic play enacted in a noble silence; a room that rains music; an altar to an unknown goddess. There is a delight half-sacred, half-profane at thinking you have glimpsed (at last!) the startled face of Mystery behind the fallen corner of a veil. Whatever happens, you must not come down by the same stair, but descend another way; and it will always be difficult to find the stair again, and sometimes you will not find it at all.

By Clemens PFEIFFER (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Better still are steps that thread not through the known quantity of a building, no matter how infolded, labyrinthine, or nested, but wind hidden into a hillside. A city is best, a city overlooking the sea even better. They will look like steps to someone's house, or a path to a back garden, because who would put a narrow stairway here, tracing the amber-beamed glimpses of diamond-paned kitchens, the shadowed patios sunk under the sunlight, the forgotten veins of knee-deep clover and eucalyptus? The stairs should be steep, and narrow, and only a little uneven underfoot; but the path they take will not be straight. Deer came here once, and Prospero's ghost after his exile stood knee-deep weeping in the morning glories. If you turn to look behind you there is only the green throat of foliage and the flung rooftops, or else, at night, the dark backs of the hillside and the lonely, lovely coronets of distant lamps. After the rain, the eucalyptus cracks underfoot and lets loose its pungent, bitter fragrance, a gray-green scent the color of your yearning to be in on the joke, to share with those steps some intimate and sacred secret that the dull people in the houses have never glimpsed or guessed. You will find no secret but the fierceness of the longing for a secret. They will take you nowhere, those steps, and you will come down with your heart full of a singing strangeness, having arrived always a moment too late to see the temple vanishing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Museum Musings: Les Correspondances, Heavy on the Dance

Via Nijeholt at nl.wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0]
Via Wikimedia Commons
So I really like it when I discover radically deep affinities between supposedly unrelated things in unlikely places. I like 'em especially when they come in the form of slightly mystical connections - you know, intuitive and evocative relationships between sensory experiences and states of mind, which the poet Baudelaire called correspondances and wrote about so awesomely that he basically spawned an entire art movement all by himself. (Okay, not by himself. But Baudelaire is the reason I do pretty much everything I do - yes, really - so I like giving him sweeping credit for things whenever possible. Also, side note: I prefer the French to the English "correspondence," of course, because hey wait a minute the word dance was perfectly happy in there, ya know.) (And now, as usual, my parenthetical is eclipsing my actual paragraph. Le sigh.) The reason I want to blog about it is the fact that it's often the chimerical and unexpected relationships between supposedly unrelated things (or projects, or ideas) that leads to great and beautiful things falling into place. When looking for sources of joy, I'm hard-pressed to find anything so immediate and satisfying as the feeling of discovering these fine threads of connection, the way a spiderweb suddenly appears from apparent invisibility when you look from just the right perspective. Only, you know, the strands are your LIFE, or whatever.
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