Monday, March 10, 2014

May Happening: Memorial

If there's anything the Museum loves, it's fortuitousness. That's why I was so delighted when the very fabulous Hunter Franks, founder of the Neighborhood Postcard Project, finagled me an introduction to the founder of the Hope Chronicles, an extremely cool project that asks the simple question "What do you hope for?" as a opening for compassion through conversation.

If you know me at all, you know that I struggle sometimes with words like "hope" and "compassion" and yes, "joy" too, and that one of my great fears in life is winding up misquoted on someone's inspirational Facebook page in Papyrus font (or worse, Comic Sans... *shudder*) on a picture of a flower or a girl jumping on a beach. You know, the kind of thing that shows up on Inspirational Quote Bingo cards. When I talk about the Museum, one of the first things I try to express is that what I mean by "joy" isn't double-plus happiness, it's the feeling of being broken open by something inexplicably wild and vast and painfully lovely. Joy is a transcendent feeling precisely because you can't fit it inside yourself, because it's too big for you and it spills over the edges, and that's where you get that sense of being part of something bigger - because it kinda breaks you, you crack open with the size of it (and yeah, that's how the light gets in, etc.) It's not necessarily a happy feeling, and it's not always a pretty or even a pleasant feeling; joy, as I define joy anyway, is bigger than that, dammit, it's overwhelming and a little frightening and glorious and revelatory and those things depend on a certain degree of unmanageability.

The Chapel of the Chimes is, as usual, my first thought on contemplating
the connection between loveliness and pain: it's one of the most beautiful
places in this country, and it's a columbarium, a storehouse for the ashes
of the dead. Picture by me. 
So it was really exciting to hear Sam Lundquist, the founder of the Hope Chronicles, use the word raw to talk about his conversations about hope. I like the word raw. I like it because words like raw point to exactly that unprettiness, that larger-and-more-deep-down-true feeling that hasn't had its edges polished off and its meaning wrapped up in a tidy package with a picture of a dandelion or perfectly tanned model jumping in a field with a big smile on it. I like the word raw because it's how every experience that really, really actually in-my-bones mattered to me actually felt. Bigger and wilder and stranger and scarier and more beautiful and usually painful, that particular piercing, almost bittersweet sensation we get when our hearts feel too big for our bodies. That hurts, yo.

But feeling those doors in your heart swing open, squeaking and rusty and reluctant, and everything shining in on the chambers all open and naked and vulnerable, as long as there is a safe space for you to do it in, is an extraordinary experience. When I read about people having deeply spiritual experience across religious disciplines, when I ask people about the moments that have mattered to them most in their whole lives, they talk, in one way or another, about that feeling. The ache of it is the part we so often leave behind when we talk about hope and joy and compassion, because we're afraid of pain. But the heart can hurt good, and I remain convinced that it is actually those moments that make up the magical treasure trove of reasons we think existence maybe matters after all.

One of the Museum projects I've been wanting to do for a long time is a work around the idea of loss and grief, which has an intricate and important relationship with the experience of joy. The concept I've been playing with is a dark chapel-like space full of lanterns (sometimes I imagine them hung on trees, sometimes not), with each lantern showing the face of someone who has been lost - ideally, people from all over would send in photos they love of people they love, which we'd turn into transparencies to create the lanterns.

Initially, I was thinking about asking people to write about a moment of great joy they experienced with the person they'd lost, and I thought about hanging these from the bottom of each lantern. After talking with Sam, though, and hearing him speak with great and moving eloquence about the ways people talk about hope, I asked him what he thought of the idea of asking contributors to write about the hope they'd been given by the person that they'd lost. (I love the idea of collaborating with Sam, whose work is super moving in a genuinely uplifting way that manages magically to escape the saccharine - a goal to which, obviously, I aspire.) Hope is one of those slippery, soap-bubbly words that can be either shining and meaningful or basically empty, but I think one of the things about the dead is the ways in which they can light a flame in us under the things that are worth living for.

It's not just that I want to create a space in which to remember what joy the dead brought us while they were still here; it's also a question of what they give us that we get to keep. Sometimes that's direct (a hope they give when they're still alive) and sometimes not (a hope that's kindled in us by the fact of their passing) but one of the things I have always wanted for the Museum of Joy has to do with the subversion of our idea of museums as places for dead things in glass boxes. While making space for memories of joy is radically important, what Sam made me think about is precisely how the dead make us keep on living - and if our experiences of joy are fundamentally those that make life worth living, hope is the belief that joy will come to us. To talk about the hope the dead give us is to make sure their flames keep burning in us.

Besides, the Museum loves lanterns. Or did you miss our 2013 lantern
event, the Festival of Light and Gratitude? Not to worry, there will be
another by Art Gimbel/fest330. Used with permission. 
tl;dr: for Memorial Day 2014, we'll be doing a version of this chapel project somewhere in San Francisco. Stay tuned for details!

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