Monday, June 16, 2014

Mahal Kita

"Has it ever struck you that making a work of art is a very odd and unnatural activity? Let us have a look at the painter: a creature created out of dust takes dust of various colors and with them creates something quite apart from himself and, what is even stranger, something that seems to have no practical use."                                                          ~William S. Heckscher, art historian and artist
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
~T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Art is indeed a very odd and unnatural activity. It creates meaning and beauty out of dust. If I were writing a novel, I might have tried to stop Curt from resigning from his job, selling his house and leaving the country to follow his tropical bliss on the other side of the planet, never to be seen again. There would be a declaration of love, a conversation, consummation, a fight, something. In fiction, I would enjoy a scene. 

          But there's no escaping the end when he leaves for good. As long as he is he and I am I, he leaves. The beginning always contains the end. Without the formula of a good story—a classic five-act dramatic structure consisting of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement, or the basic three-part structure with setup, conflict, and resolution—our dramatic arc just tapers off.

          He knows I'm sad but swiftly changes the subject, cracks a joke. I know he loves me only because of how he sometimes signs his emails. He doesn't know I googled Mahal kita; it means I love you in Tagalog. 

          And unlike the the impractical domain of art—with its sleek, astonishing self-contained worlds, suspended in frozen time between the brackets of a frame or the covers of a bookin this world time goes on and there's nothing we can do about it.

Friday, June 13, 2014


 Étant donnés, by Marcel Duchamp
          Do you know the story of how John Lennon fell in love with Yoko Ono? He describes in an interview how he met Yoko at an art gallery. Lennon had been a classically trained art student so he was skeptical about conceptual and performance art. But when he saw a tall ladder set up in the gallery as part of the show, he dutifully climbed up anyway. Dangling from a panel on the ceiling was a magnifying glass and printed on the ceiling, too tiny to be deciphered by the naked eye, was the single word: Yes. The experience Yoko had wanted to create was one of affirmation and relief, like a hope realized after the struggle of a long ascent, or the answer to a prayer. The rest is history.

Yoko observing her work called Yes Painting

          Conceptual and performance art make a lot of us uneasy because they engage us in a level of participation otherwise absent from normal art. In the former, a viewer becomes part of the concept or performance and contributes to its shifting meaning; in the latter a viewer is primarily a critic, a voyeur among other voyeurs, perhaps commenting in hushed tones about a painting or sculpture, or experiencing a more private response, but always at a safe remove behind plexiglass or a velvet rope.

          On my Facebook newsfeed recently someone posted a Banksy video and, judging from the responses, you'd think every viewer was looking at a completely different film.

Banksy's Sirens of the Lambs

          We were all looking at the same film, of course, but it was we, as individuals, who were different. In fact, my first reaction was outrage for the slaughtered lambs and a brief flirtation with veganism, but an hour later I was laughing my ass off. Part of my laughter, I'm afraid, had to do with embarrassment at my initial reaction. Regardless of Banksy's artistic intention with Sirens of the Lambs, we viewers define who we are—or how we wish to be seen—by how we react to his work.

How the artist wishes to be seen and how the viewer wishes to be seen are often at odds, and this creates a dilemma which is itself, I believe, a purpose of art. Through our highly subjective responses to art, we are almost violently brought to the brink between who we are and who we wish to be, how we see and how we wish to be seen.

          In my inbox today, I received another video from the Campaign for Truth & Justice in Sri Lanka for their Stop Torture campaign. Their public relations scheme was disturbing. In Sri Lanka, where women and girls are raped and tortured with impunity by members of the military police, they have no protection or legal recourse. In the video, Cara Delevingne, a very pretty, blond actress, performed a dramatic reading for the Campaign during which she read a Tamil woman’s actual account of her own torture and gang rape. There was a warning on the video stating it may be very upsetting to watch.
Cara Delevingne—International Truth & Justice Project Sri Lanka

          That the actress is pale and blond while Tamil women are dark was a little disconcerting, but I figured this is about human rights, after all. Why discriminate against blonds? Halfway through the film, though, it dawned on me that the actress was nude. Doubtless, Delevingne and the Campaign are sincere in their effort to help the plight of Tamil women and had no intention of appearing to titillate. Perhaps her nakedness is meant to convey her vulnerability. But we're not being asked to watch a woman's rape, we're being asked to listen to a real-life account of it. Something feels terribly wrong. Where do we draw the line between censorship and titillation? But perhaps a harder question, especially in the context of a human rights appeal, is just why is rape so titillating? 
Courbet's "The Origin of the World"
At the Musée d’Orsay every day people admire Gustave Courbet's painting, "The Origin of the World." In a lavish gilt frame, the painting depicts a faceless nude woman, close up, with her legs spread open at the foreground drawing our attention to the mysterious place from which all life emerges. A few weeks ago, a performance artist named Deborah de Robertis walked up to the painting, lifted her sparkly golden mini-dress, so like Courbet's golden frame, and sat down, opening her legs and using her fingers to spread open her labia, for the following reason.

          "If you ignore the context, you could construe this performance as an act of exhibitionism, but what I did was not an impulsive act,” she explained to Luxemburger Wort. “There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.”
"Mirror of Origin"

          De Robertis performed "Mirror of Origin" in the same museum several times, but she was only arrested once. Do you think Deborah de Robertis is courageous? Is she a profound thinker making you think? Is she witty? Absurd? Irreverent? A slut? I wonder how you feel about this performance and, if you are disturbed, how do you interpret your own response? Do you find yourself thrust violently to the terrifying precipice between awareness and self-awareness? Or is it bullshit?

          I thoroughly admire de Robertis, but my initial responses were purely practical; I thought Her ass must be cold and That looks like my vagina and I bet she's embarrassed, wouldn't it be great if someone joined her, which led to I'd love to see this live, but not with my kids. But once I settled in and really looked, I was reminded of another provocative painting in another museum.

A long time ago, I had a boyfriend whose idea of a hot date was to take me to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés. It was very "special," he said, one of his favorite works of art and he wanted me to see it for the first time with him.

Normally the tiny, windowless room leading to the wooden door is dark
          The work of art was in a small dark room all by itself and the boyfriend instructed me to go in alone. But there was someone else in the room, peering into a crack in the door, and he was shaking violently. At first I had thought he was part of the installation, but when I cleared my throat he turned around. His hand was in his pants and he was smiling.

          "Isn't this wonderful?" he said, right before turning back to the peephole. How strange, I thought, that those happen to have been the very words uttered by the boyfriend after our first kiss. I had thought the words charming then.

          The boyfriend was waiting for me, puzzled about why I'd come out so soon, but before I could think of how to explain, the masturbating man emerged, smiling in complicity.

          When I returned to the dark room and pressed my eye to the peephole, I was afraid. What I saw behind the closed door, beyond the ragged edges of a blasted brick wall, was this three-dimensional environmental tableau.
I believe that most women imagine this faceless woman is dead, that it's an image of the aftermath of rape. I pressed up against the peephole to see what might be hidden out of direct view but it was a perfect microcosm. I worried how the sharp, bare twigs would cut into my flesh, how cold I would be outside and stripped bare in the winter; I thought of the man masturbating to the sight of her hairless, defenseless, dead vagina; and I recalled the time the boyfriend shared with me a single entry from his Dream Journal—how he'd been cross when I'd skipped ahead to a different dream about a naked woman who spread her legs but "her pussy hairs were tightly woven together so I couldn't get in"; and I wondered what was so wonderful? Was it just that Duchamp's nude was penetrable?

          But I expressed none of my worries and asked no troubling questions. To please the boyfriend, I asked, "I wonder how he made that shimmering waterfall in the background?" If he was disappointed in my response, I didn't notice because he quickly walked into the dark room for his own viewing of Étant donnés. It may have occurred to me then that men must view the image differently. What a woman experiences as defenselessness, a man may view as willingness.

          What occurs to me now is a cascading stream of other people's opinions. Life imitates art (Oscar Wilde); Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth (Picasso); One eye sees, the other feels (Paul Klee); Art is not what you see, but what you make others see (Degas); A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells the less you know (Diane Arbus); One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself (Da Vinci); Your mind is working at its best when you are being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity (Banksy); We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are (Anaïs Nin); and We have art in order not to die of the truth (Nietzsche).

          Rilke says simply, Go into yourself, and this is really a way of approaching life, art, and all relationships and problems, and I believe it's what conceptual and performance art asks us to do.

Still, aren't you curious about Duchamp's motivation for Étant donnés? Yoko Ono knows and speaks about what The Yes Painting means to her and de Robertis has explained The Mirror of Origin to the Luxemburger Wort, allowing our interpretations to perhaps be influenced by their maker. But what about Duchamp?

Duchamp's instruction manual for Étant donnés

          For 20 years Duchamp constructed this final work of his in secret, while pretending to the world he had given up art to play chess. This gave him complete privacy and freedom to create.

In his Will, Duchamp stipulated that Étant donnés, which was hidden in his Manhattan studio, be posthumously placed on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where there was already an extensive Duchamp wing. He left an instruction manual for the careful dismantling and exact reconstruction of his work. 

          The nude is a hybrid of women he loved; the body was cast from his wife, a sculptor who advised him on how to use parchment for the skin, and the arm holding the lantern was cast from the girlfriend who came after the wife. Originally, the wife's dark hair was used, but later it was replaced by the hair of his blond girlfriend. His lovers were both the objects of his work and his collaborators. Apparently, some of his earlier works were painted with his semen and there were collages made of hair. An atmosphere of spirited taxidermy then, or perhaps of fervent erotic devotion in the compulsion to immortalize...what? A person—a feeling—a purpose? 

          Étant donnés is always translated into English as Given, but the French title is plural. More than one thing is being given. The work's full title is, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage or, in English, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas. Doesn't that sound like a detective listing the clues or perhaps offering viewers a chess-like strategy for solving the question of meaning?

          The waterfall in Étant donnés is a kitschy, illuminated, trickling rainbow like a vision from a fairytale or dreamscape, a strange mixture of nature and artifice. The water appears to be falling because it's made from translucent plastic backed by rotating discs powered by a motor housed in a biscuit tin. The gas light actually illuminates and is held up by the raised hand of the girl; if she is meant to be dead, then how are we to imagine she is holding up her arm? She must be illuminating a clue. Perhaps she—the object of desire—is able to direct us powerfully and posthumously. But where?

          The off-putting title of one speculative article I found online is "Duchamp's Eroticism: A Mathematical Analysis." The artist Hannah Wilke who was "repulsed" by Étant donnés did a performance in which she took the place of the nude. Another critic I stumbled on earnestly concluded that the waterfall symbolized piss and the gaslight was farts.

More and more, I'm convinced we live in a Tower of Babel, that we all speak different languages but want to be able to understand, and be understood. Yoko and John shared a deeply personal interpretation and experienced it as the epiphany of love. I understand Duchamp as having wanted—and had—the last word; his meaning dies with him and yet is immortalized in the enigma of his lifework. 

          That we have such widely divergent reactions and interpretations about everything under the sun doesn't make any of us right or wrong, just desperate to justify our own claim to meaning and, perhaps, we feel a teeny bit Godlike when we succeed in making our case. But by that logic, every interpretation is merely a declaration of self, never an objective declaration of truth. Is my interpretation. For the moment.

If you made it this far (congratulations), you might be wondering what the hell is my point in all this. That's what I've been wondering all night. Is this perhaps more absurd than the guy who vigorously defends farts as a valid interpretation of a gaslightbecause at least he's trying to make a case for something. What am I doing so earnestly and imperfectly here?

          What I'm attempting isn't a scholarly investigation of avant-garde art, nor is it a feminist critique of art history and the male gaze, not a misogynist defense of rape-culture, not an existential argument for or against meaning, not a celebration of the triumph of John and Yoko (maybe that).

          What if the peephole through Duchamp's gate, beyond his smashed brick wall, allows us to glimpse the origin of all things, life and death, exposed like a terrible, gorgeous, bewildering truth? 

          What if all I do is raise a lantern, looking for my own Paradise?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What You Want

For Rosa

Tea leaves, Tarot cards, astrology, Reiki, Shiatsu, past life regression, exercise, diet, yoga, vitamin supplements, herbal remedies, homeopathy, psychotherapy, meditation, medication, contemplation, the laws of physics, and poetry all help to some extent, but none has succeeded in providing lasting peace.

          Still, I left the The New Yorker open to page 42 on the toilet tank for over five months because I hadn't understood the last lines of particularly a challenging poem. It begins,

The rotational earth, the resting for seconds:
hemisphere one meets hemisphere two,
thoughts twist apart at the center seam.
Everything inside is.
Cyndi Lauper and I both fall into pure emptiness.
That's one way to think: I think I am right now.
We have no past we won't reach back

I read the beautiful poem sometimes, in private, when I shit. I think I finally understand the last lines but, like Cyndi Lauper or Mary Jo Bang or any of us, I can't really share what isn't mine, or what probably already belongs to all of us. We have to find out for ourselves. And I find myself worrying about the poet who seems to know so much. Is she happy? Does she get invited to parties? Is she even sane? 

          I may have been going about it all wrong for the past five decades. Prayer may be the final frontier, a last resort, but it's been impossible for me even when I've felt utterly bereft. I thought prayer required a sustained belief in an Ineffable Something that's both external and inclusive, inclusive and yet superior. Furthermore, while I believe in charity, I'm no beggarand this has probably always been my first obstacle. The inability to pray might arise from a kind of false pride. 

          Finally, prayer is so inherently irrational—we're not the omniscient ones so how the hell can we know what's appropriate to ask for? Isn't it hubris to expect my prayer to be answered while the prayers of 6 million Jews, for example, were not? 

          But lately, when I experience that flickering beggar's impulse, so easily snuffed out by pride and logic, I do more than yield to it. I focus all my attention on the little wish, as with the candles on a birthday cake, and invest all my faith into that wish, concentrating my very breath on it till the impulse flares up, and up, and is finally spent. It's the orgasm of the chaste.

          In yielding, the impulse becomes a demand—here is the unforeseen paradox, like the sexual paradoxthe act of surrender is the act of empowerment.

          Twice in the last month I've prayed in this metaphysical way, and both times I have received an answer to my prayers.  Though the answers were not exactly what I'd hoped for, they are no less miraculous, no less a salvation.

          Perhaps what I call prayer is just a blip of self-realization. I'm not concerned, for those few moments, with anything but my own need, which opens into a wordless plea, or just the chanting of a single word (please or help): a pure call awaiting a pure response. 

          Is it just because I am so ready for a response that I perceive one? Do I create my own miracles? Everyday miracles abound—the miraculous is overlooked daily, until we look. Could it be that prayer just makes us look?

Please, please, please, help, help, help was my first prayer. I didn't know what to ask for, just that I was desperate—the dead Mourning Dove had appeared in my bed that day, the work of my cat, Pablo. After shrieking and cleaning and fussing, I was late for my "date" with Curt, but I went to our meeting place anyway, and realized I was waiting for someone who had left and would not return. I was waiting, I told myself, for a grand gesture of love. I felt unable to face another loss, the loss of Curt and the many other losses that are approaching with the predictability of a Swiss train—selling so many of my parents' belongings accumulated over their lifetimes, and for generations, selling my childhood home, my son's inevitable departure for college next yearI waited, staring at the entrance, for a very long time before I finally stood up and left.

          The grand gesture appeared a little later in the form of a message from my sister, telling me in a voice I trust completely, You're coping beautifully, in your own way, in your own time, and I am buying a plane ticket to come help you.

The consequence of my prayers has been a focused abundance of strength and resolve, clarity and relief, right here and now, right on target, right on time. Having said that, I notice another prayer has been answered right under my nose, without my ever having noticed I'd asked.

          I've been trying to find a Sufi group nearby without success, and I fret because I feel I'm just not making progress. My dear friend, Rosa, who hasn't been interested in Sufism for nearly as long as I have, just found a Sufi yoga teacher, like magic. I even complained to Rosa recently about how no Sufis have magically dropped into my life to guide me.

          Today I finally realized it. Of course Rosa is my Sufi guide, as well as a fellow seeker. She often seems to think I am the one helping her, but she is always helping me. 

The rotational earth, the resting for seconds:
hemisphere one meets hemisphere two,
thoughts twist apart at the center seam.
Everything inside is.
Cyndi Lauper and I both fall into pure emptiness.
That's one way to think: I think I am right now.
We have no past we won't reach back
The clock ticks like the nails of a foiled dog
chasing a faster rabbit across a glass expanse.
A wheel of fortune spins on its side,
stops and starts. The stopped time
is no longer time, only an illusion that says,
I can have this, and this, and this.
Cyndi says nothing works like that.
There is no all-purpose plastic totem
that acts like a bouncer holding back the fact
that at least once a day you look up:
it's the self you kept in a suitcase holding the key,
coming to meet you, every cell a node
in a network of ongoing doubling. Cyndi says
the world expands but always keeps us in it.
For every you, there's a riot grrrl in prison
in Putin's Russia. You know the self dissolves
and when it does—no figure, all ground,
like a surface seen microscopically—
you fill the frame and explode,
a rubber-wound inside unravelling and becoming
a measurement of whatever exits. It's like sleep,
if sleep were a film that didn't include you, but no,
whatever is happening, you are always in it,
the indispensable point of view.
Proof of that is that a lift force brings you back
and you wake, back to your face, hands, mirror
image in the bed next to you, Ketamine moment
where kinesthesia is secondary to everything
is possible: you and you and you and now and
you and yes and you with the night-self singing
backup. Onstage, the fractured future of a world
which is the world with the scaffolding folded
and laid on top of this night. All through it.
Until it ends or else begins again. Meanwhile,
that indefatigable wavering between
what you want and what you get for wanting.
                              —Mary Jo Bang (The New Yorker, December 2, 2013)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

You Can't Always Get

Meanwhile, that indefatigable wavering between what you want
and what you get for wanting.
Mary Jo Bang, "All Through the Night"
The first time I used my new sheetsan indulgence of rich, silvery pink, made of 600-thread-count Egyptian cottontwo dots of blood appeared towards the foot of my bed. I must have scratched a scab in my sleep. But the next night, when I turned down the covers, there were new dots followed by a thin streak of blood, arranged like lines of Morse code. I inspected my legs but they were unmarked, no nicks or scratches. 

          This morning when I stood at the end of my bed, dressing to meet Curt, it occurred to me that this was the first time we were meeting without the pretext of work. Just then I noticed something at my feet. It might have been some damp, brown leaves carried in on the heel of a boot, clumped into a bird shape. But it was spring, not fall. There was a dead bird lying at my feet, and not just any bird: a Mourning Dove.

          When you discover you've been sharing your bed with a Mourning Dovea dead Mourning Doveyou have to ask yourself a few questions. First you scream like a banshee, but when you quiet down, you frame the questions.

          How? That's easy, your cat Pablo must have brought it in, unnoticed.

          When? When you first noticed Morse-code on the new sheets.

          Where? At the foot of the bed, on the Persian carpet, where there are tufts of down that you'd mistaken for shedding cat fur; around the laundry basket in your closet where Pablo likes to nap is a trail of downy feathers; under your bed are more feathers; and blood in your bed.

          Why did it take you so long to apprehend? Even when you finally noticed the bird, first it was merely a plausible shape. Why is the unsolved mystery.

I had dreamt the night before that there were two of me, one driving my father's old Dodge Dart, and the other in the backseat. The driver points to the salt mines on the right, as a tour guide might invite a tourist to take in a grand panorama: it could be a chilly snowscape, except for the way the air shimmers over the rough pyramids of salt, the crystals themselves dull as uncut diamonds, the way they vanish into white sand below and white sky above. The sun is so bright that everything appears bleached and dulland where is the sea?  Only the light itself is dazzling, except where an old Tamil in a dark red sarong climbs like a spider to the top of a salt mound. He pauses to look at our car and I feel the driver has not meant for me to see him. 

          I turn away and there, to the left, are green hills softly undulating beneath shifting clouds in a blue skyit's the movement of the clouds and their shadows that makes the hills scintillate. 

          A third person, I understand, has recently vacated the seat beside me. Her window is open and the door unlocked. 

          The driver taps on the rearview mirror, where I see her eyes reflected. She means for me to look at the salt.   

The basement has flooded again and I've had to throw out boxes of my father's framed drawings where mold blossoms under the glass like new art or a science experiment. These are some of his earliest portraits and self-portraits, by far his most realistic, mostly set in the elegant rooms of his childhood home in Hamburg before it was bombed in the second World War.

          A picture of my mother from the 1940s in a bridesmaid's dress, I recognize only from its antique wood frame. The photograph is white now, but its erasure is still incomplete. Only my mother's drowning face emerges from the pool of white.

          I have an idea that I can save what remains of the photo by taking a picture of it, so I try to free it from its frame, but the frame has rotted and crumbles apart softly in my hands. The sensation of decay is revolting. The basement must have been damp for years, without anyone noticing, otherwise the damage wouldn't be so pervasive now. I begin to fill garbage bags with what is ruined.

          A box of 78 rpm recordings of my grandfather playing his violin. My mother never played them because they brought back the painful memory of his suffering, but she insisted on saving them for 50 years. I would have saved them, too, in her memory, and left it for my children to get rid of. 

          A bag of baby clothes, belonging to my now nearly-grown children; a red plaid onesie not much bigger than the outline of my hand, a knit cap with a big pink flower sewn onto the front like a headlamp. 

          A framed pastel I'd drawn 20 years ago when I had been preoccupied by a kind of waking dream. Everyone must have these, like a nervous tic, but we largely ignore them. This tic was intrusive, so I drew to externalize it. The image was simple and abstract, a smudged blue outline of a little cube sitting on a smudged blue arc. Above the arc, a bluish background; beneath was whitish. Inside the cube was blurry yellow. The image captured the self-sufficiency of a lonely beacon, a kind of cold, silent yearning, as of a lonely house on an empty plain in winter, with a light on. The dream stopped when I made the drawing, but I had framed it and even hung it for a while.

          As I shove that drawing into a garbage bag, I realize that I've been having a similar type of waking dream for the past five months, since my mother died. The image comes, like a beating heart or a clock ticking, throughout the day, so pervasive I hardly notice. 

          I see it clearly right now; the scene is a bit sentimental, like a pre-Raphaelite painting: a girl in a green gown with loose, dark, hair waits at an arched gate embedded along a high wall. She sits outside the gate day and night, huddled in the niche of the closed door. The girl seems to have fallen asleep waiting. Beyond the wall must be a house and a garden, but it is unimagined. There must be a street, also unimagined. The girl knows the gate will never open, but she continues her vigil.

By the time I've disposed of the bird, vacuumed all its feathers, scrubbed and blotted, emptied the garbage, and put a load of bedding into the washing machine on the hottest cycle, I'm still not dressed. I get a text message from Curt apologizing, but he says he has to leave in 15 minutes. I'm already an hour late.

          I go to the library, where we always meet, even though I know he's already left. I don't know why I've come here. I text him to let him know I'm here, even though he's gone, and I apologize. It's a gesture. He calls me right back and even though I whisper, my voice carries in the hushed space. He's such a good sport, apologizing for something that's my fault. Several minutes after we hang up, I realize I'm still sitting in the same armchair by the stacks, cell phone in hand, waiting. 

          The culmination of all my waiting, all the impatience, embarrassment, anticipation, dread, fear, yearning, curiosity, and resignation has crystalized into this moment in timethis single note of fury, growling like low-A on a piano with my foot on the pedal. I sustain it.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Path of Jamais Vu

The goddess Maya

The Jackson 5 was playing on my car radio this morning—badly muffled by static left over from the Big Bang, but I distinctly heard Michael singing the precocious nursery rhyme.

Without the roots of love, girl
Your education ain't complete.
Teacher's gonna show you.

          What is this static but leftover heat from the fireball of creation 13.7 billion years ago, this faint crackle of white noise obscuring the pure human voice and merging with it? Only .1 percent of all light comes from the stars, the nebulae, the galaxies. If our human eyes were capable of seeing the microwave evidence of the moment of creation, we would be flooded in perpetual light. But we can't see it, and this eternal light is the coldest thing in the universe, cooled by the expansion of the universe to less than 3 degrees above absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature. I know this, as well as other things. But what I don't know is incalculable.

          How strange it would be to have amnesia, to know some things but not others. To know, for example, that Michael Jackson died of a drug overdose when he was 50, and simultaneously hear his disembodied voice calling out from childhood through outer space. There are kinds of amnesia that are incomplete, selective or random, and some cases never abate. What if we remembered everything about Michael Jackson, but nothing about technology? How quickly we would draw the wrong conclusions about life and death and time.

          This was my original thought while I caught static trying to tune in to a radio signal, just as it was Plato's original thought 2,000-some-odd years ago while he was writing the allegory of the cave in The Republic. Plato writes about prisoners in a cave who are able to see only the shadows cast by the world beyond. For the prisoners, reality is whatever meaning they agree to assign the shadows. Plato then imagines the anguish of a freed prisoner, how the sudden light would burn his eyes, his confusion and even his desire to recover the old, familiar meaning of his enslaved life, and on his return to the cave, the prisoners would distrust his new knowledge and would begin to hate him.

          The idea is also the basis for The Matrix, the cult-classic movie in which the human race is enslaved by illusion. In both The Republic and The Matrix, most humans are not strong enough to fight the illusion.

          In Hinduism, the world of names and forms is Maya, the trickster goddess who represents the illusion of multiplicity that conceals the reality of oneness. She's the one who distracts us with money, prestige, and sex in an endless cycle of desire and pursuit. The dreamlike reality we inhabit combines matter with mental construction. For this reason, our minds, as well as our senses, are not to be trusted. We fiercely identify ourselves with the opinions and ideas we hold, defending our beliefs as if they form a solid structure that defines by confining us. The identification we have with our minds is another example of the seductive falsehood of individual identity. But without the illusion of plurality and separateness we can make sense of nothing.

         The Muslim conception of God is totally abstract—there's no old man in the sky and even the prophets are never depicted with faces. (Faces may tempt us to worship false idols; hardcore Muslims will even shun family photos.) How can we believe without a doubt in something that is, by definition, inconceivable? When Muslims pray to Allah, how do they envisage the ineffable?

          The Qu'ran tends to describe Allah by what he is not as much as by what he is. He is Allah, the One; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begets not, and neither is He begotten; And there is nothing that can be compared to Him.  With Allah we need no intermediaries, like priests or rabbis, because Allah is everywhere, and nearer to us than our jugular vein.

          The Light, like The Merciful and The Abaser, is one of the 99 names of Allah. There is a mystical passage in the Qu'ran called The Verse of Light that begins, Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. We're asked to think of Allah as the light of an oil lamp, behind glass, inside a dark niche. The lamp's oil appears to glow independently from the flame, Light upon light. We're not directed towards the sun, which is inconceivably distant, immense, and fearsome, and which shines on all of us indiscriminately but leaves us in darkness each night. We're asked to imagine the inconceivable radiance of Allah contained within something small and manageable, an ordinary, manmade object designed for personal use.

          One of the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous is that members serve only their "higher power" or "God as we understand him." This is nonnegotiable even for those who can't or don't want to envisage a deity. Heathens are told that it doesn't matter if they don't believe it, anything of their choosing can stand in for a higher powerif they can't think of something, they're told they can picture the coffee pot. The coffee pot at an AA meeting is as ubiquitous as booze in a bar or a crucifix in a church.

          God's manifestation as a coffee pot is less lyrical but comparable to Allah in the oil lamp. We're not worshipping a coffee pot or a lamp, but our desperate, limited minds require visual aids and mental construction to believe what we can neither see nor comprehend. The tricky part is remembering that the symbol, so vital to our pact, isn't the thing itself. We need a way to cross the imaginary boundary between the world of shadows and the truth that remains invisible and yet as close to us as our jugular vein.

          What if everything we don't know has just been forgotten? What if everything we've always known to be true vanishes at the moment of remembering what's been kept from us?

                                                      Duncan Mitchell

If our new knowledge supersedes the old, I'm afraid most of us will resist truth the way we resist suicide. I had just such a "near-death" experience in my last year of college. I was supposed to write a paper on Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus but I was having some trouble finishing the book.

All visible things are emblems; what thou seest is not there on its own account; strictly taken, is not there at all: Matter exists only spiritually, and to represent some Idea, and body it forth. Hence Clothes, as despicable as we think them, are so unspeakably significant. Clothes, from the King's mantle downwards, are emblematic, not of want only, but of a manifold cunning Victory over Want. On the other hand, all Emblematic things are properly Clothes, thought-woven or hand-woven: must not the Imagination weave Garments, visible Bodies, wherein the else invisible creations and inspirations of our Reason are, like Spirits, revealed, and first become all-powerful; the rather if, as we often see, the Hand too aid her, and (by wool Clothes or otherwise) reveal such even to the outward eye? "Men are properly said to be clothed with Authority, clothed with Beauty, with Curses, and the like. Nay, if you consider it, what is Man himself, and his whole terrestrial Life, but an Emblem; a Clothing or visible Garment for that divine ME of his, cast hither, like a light-particle, down from Heaven? Thus is he said also to be clothed with a Body.

          Actually, my trouble was that I wasn't able to read it at all. What I saw on the page was a moving pattern of blank lines and spaces winding around clumps of fixed black marks. I recognized only the blankness, which was incalculably deep and fluid. A wave of nausea, a racing heart, a cold sweat.

          I lay down on my bed and rested, then tried again, but it was no use. My eyes found no traction, no design resembling a paragraph, sentence, word, or letter. Because I was afraid to be alone, I stepped out into the hallway of my dorm, where a couple of girls were talking. They still inhabited the normal world, while I exploded into oblivion. 

          When I finished sobbing, there was a calm, spacious feeling of stillness equivalent to vacancy. Awareness of the vacancy made my mind race. In search of something solid to hold on to I began rapidly cataloging the strange sensations aloud until spasmodic sobs again surrounded the vacancy.

         The school psychiatrist drugged me with an antipsychotic called Haldol. Of my three days in the infirmary, I remember little more than platters of microwaved scrambled eggs and that the radio seemed to be repeating all my favorite tracks from Ghost in the Machine. When I was sent home to recover I began seeing a psychiatrist several times a week.

          "This is a common malady," he said. "The dissociation and dread you experienced are classic symptoms of a panic attack." Under severe emotional stress, people can suffer from a kind of amnesia called jamais vu. As déjà vu is the false sensation of repeating an experience, jamais vu, which literally means "never seen," is the false sensation of not recognizing something familiar. We experience jamais vu when we forget how to spell a common word, like "I." It suddenly looks weird, sounds weird, and we have to ask someone how to spell it. Only when we're reassured do we laugh at ourselves, relieved.

          In my experience of jamais vu, I was unable to read or recognize the alphabet, or gauge the depth of a page. With a little Xanax and cognitive behavioral therapy, my psychiatrist reassured me, I'd be good as new. He was right; I was able to graduate from college the following year with various distinctions, and no further anxiety.

          But he wasn't entirely right. Naturally I was relieved when, as promised, everything had returned to the way it was before my jamais vu experience. But I've never forgotten the terror of losing belief in myself, of opening a book to the void of uninterpreted reality.

                                                              Berndnaut Smilde

For a month, I've been taking obsessive notes about boxes, all kinds of boxes, and the nature of light, as if by opening one of these boxes I will find a source of illumination. 

Schrodinger's cat is trapped in a situation known as superposition, or The Observer's Paradox. Erwin Schrodinger proposed a theoretical experiment to illustrate this principle. The gist of it is that as long as we don't know what state an object is in (alive or dead, for example) it's actually in all possible states simultaneously. But if we peek, then the object is reduced to just a single state. This reduction from all possibilities to one is due solely to the act of measurement. Because superposition describes the nature of reality at a subatomic level, Schrodinger attempts to show us how it works with objects we can actually visualize; so we're asked to imagine Schrodinger's cat.  
Schrodinger puts his theoretical cat and a vial of poison into a closed steel box, along with a bit of a radioactive substance. If a single atom of this substance decays—and there's a 50/50 chance it will—the poison vial is rigged to break open, and the cat will die in agony. There is no way for us to know if the radioactive substance has decayed until we open the box. So long as we are in a state of not knowing, Schodinger's cat is both alive and dead, in a superposition of states, according to quantum law. To the philosophical question, "When a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?" a physicist might answer, "Yes and no," and then back his assertion with Schrodinger's cat. According to the laws of The Observer's Paradox, when in doubt, anything is possible.
Matter and energy are interchangeable and Einstein's most famous equation proves that the energy of speed increases an object's mass, and that its mass would become infinite at 186,000 miles per second, or the speed of light. The impossibility of this is supposed to prove that the speed of light is unattainable. So why isn't light infinite? Because it has no mass?

Is love a kind of light? The Big Bang occurred 15 billion years ago, when all matter and energy were still boxed into a tiny singularity. In an instant, this single point began to expand rapidly. As the newborn universe spread out and cooled down, more stable particles and photons began to form. And then there was light—a photon is a fundamental, irreducible, massless particle of light. Photons can't be split or decay because they are without mass, but they can transmute.
In Greek mythology, the first woman is named Pandora, the translation of which is Giver of All. God, called Zeus, gives her a box and tells her that under no circumstances is she to open it. Pandora's curiosity overcomes her desire to obey and eventually she opens the box. With incredible speed, all the evils of the world that Zeus had withheld waft out of the box like poison vapors—toil, illness, grief, death—until Pandora quickly closes the box. In most versions of the story, she'd let everything free but Hope, which had been trapped inside among all kinds of suffering.

Of course it was all part of Zeus' master plan; like Eve biting the apple, Pandora gave humans a reason to obey: disobey God and you will surely suffer. But as long as hope remains in the box, how do we know if it's a live or dead? How do we dare hold the box open?

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), currently under construction in the South of France will weigh 23-thousand tons and stand 100-feet tall upon completion. In his article "A Star in a Bottle," Raffi Khatchadourian writes in The New Yorker (March 3, 2014),
At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates. The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles—the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds—will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat. In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding 200-million degrees Celsius—more than 10 times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.
No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter. Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium—and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. There isn't a physical substance that could contain such a thing. Metals, plastics, ceramics, concrete, even pure diamond—all would be obliterated on contact, and so the machine will hold the superheated cloud in a "magnetic bottle," using the largest system of superconducting magnets in the world. Just feet from the reactor's core, the magnets will be cooled to 269 degrees below zero, nearly the temperature of deep space. Caught in the grip of their titanic forces, the artificial earthbound sun will be suspended, under tremendous pressure, in the pristine nothingness of ITER's vacuum interior.
If light suffuses all things at all times but is merely beyond perception, then I am also a box of light. For Sufis, to open such a box successfully requires sincerity and the submission of a disciple to a teacher. The relationship between teacher and disciple is paradoxical because the only teacher, according to Sufi understanding, is Allah. The student must trust wholeheartedly in the teacher. There can be no bad teacher, because what the disciple is really learning comes from his own contemplation of the teacher's attitude, behavior, words and tests. In Philosophy, Psychology, Mysticism, the Sufi mystic, Hazrat Inayat Khan, writes,
[The Sufi teacher] does not give anything to or teach the pupil, the mureed, for he cannot give what the latter already has; he cannot teach what his soul has always known. What he does in the life of the mureed is to show him how he can clear his path towards the light within by his own self.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


The world changes, 
love stays.
~Charles Aznavour

I don't know why I've been thinking of it again. Not thinking, exactly: The memory flashes for just a second or two, a few whispered words in the dark, a slight movement caught in a spotlight. The feeling of exposure. It was so long ago, but it's just that this image intrudes more and more—while I'm doing ordinary things, like washing the dishes or petting the cat or turning out the lights—and there must be some explanation.

          My mother sat beside me in a dark theater, looking pissed off and resigned; I was only seven and didn't know what to expect. Charles Aznavour, the world-famous chanteur and protégé of Edith Piaf, was in town to do a show and my mother's cousin Levon was his lighting guy so we had free tickets and an invitation to come backstage after the show. It was supposed to be a great honor except my mother hated him, the way she hated Chopin, because his music was embarrassing and self-indulgent.

          Forget Edith Piaf, or the accolade "France's Frank Sinatra": Aznavour is to the Armenians what Barbra Streisand is to the Jews. For Streisand's cross-eyes and big nose, Aznavour has no discernible upper lip and is barely five-feet-three-inches tall. These two simultaneously confirm and absolve every ethnic slur.

          At a low point early in his career, Aznavour had gotten drunk and written a list of his deficits, "My shortcomings are my voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my frankness and my lack of personality ... I am incorrigible … I say ‘merde’ to anybody, however important he is, when I feel like it.” When he sobered up, he realized the only way to succeed would be to channel his shortcomings. In every song you will find his bluntness, his lyricism, his existential grasp that we're always in the process of losing what we love most, his street-savvy arrogance, his small, expressive body and his languid, direct gaze.

          My mother was right; Aznavour was embarrassing and self-indulgent. But he was also shameless and unapologetic, and when he sang to us, when he sang to me, spoke to me in his rich, tremulous, heartbreaking voice, he also spoke for me. Which is a little strange because he was a man in his 40s then, singing songs, mostly in French, about the passing of time, love and grief, how memories mix with desire, but mostly, he sang about sex. He ends his song Toi et Moi, for example, with the words, "Pleasure me, make love to me." I didn't understand the words, but I felt them.

          Singing isn't precisely the word for what he does. He uses his body, as well as props; a cigarette (he smokes while he sings), a white handkerchief, a chair. He turns the chair the wrong way and straddles it, resting his head on the chairback, as if he's too tired to fight it anymore, this woman, these emotions, time itself. He lights a cigarette, exhales smoke, and begins to talk. (In a recent interview, when asked if he thought he was the end of his musical lineage, he answered that rap, when it has the feel of street poetry, is the new chanson.)

          He speaks English with a heavy French accent, and although most of his songs are in French, the one I remember was in English, and the part I remember is when he stops singing, mid-song, and begins to talk to an imagined lover.

          What he does next is incredible—as he's telling his phantom lover how he wants to hold her when they dance, he turns his back on the audience and begins to dance alone, embracing himself, miming the hands of a lover. He murmurs adoring words to himself. While his hand reaches around to caress his shoulder, his hair, the back of his neck, he becomes both lover and beloved. The audience applauds.

          I could barely breathe; my mother called it kitsch.

When we went backstage, cousin Levon sent us to the back of the line so we could stay and chat. I watched women of all ages blush and stammer as Aznavour shook their hands and signed autographs. In the end we approached and stood before him like the wretched before God himself. In the middle of the empty room, under a glaring light, Aznavour was seated on a high stool. It gave him a taller appearance as long as you didn't look down at his dangling feet.

          Aznavour said something in French and Levon handed him a towel. After he rubbed the sweat from his face and hair he tossed the damp towel back to Levon, who made our introductions in English.

          "Speak to me in Armenian," he said to my mother. They were about the same age and though neither had been born in Turkey, both of their parents had been Armenian exiles so Hayeren had been their first language.

          "That's artificial to me," my mother said. "Why should we speak Armenian when can both speak English?"

          "It's not artificial, it's natural. It's only artificial when you make it that way." My mother looked like she wanted to slap him while he, in return, just seemed amused. They understood one another, but they spoke different languages—he continued to speak in Armenian but she answered in English.

          "Do you like my music? Tell me your favorite song?"

          "You're putting me on the spot right now."

          "Yes, I am."

          "I suppose ... Yesterday When I Was Young," she said.

          "And what about you?" he asked me. I answered truthfully that I liked all his songs.

           Aznavour reached over and picked up a record album and a pen from the table beside him and signed the album cover for me. He offered my mother a cigarette and lit both his and hers with a single match. He took his time lighting it.

          "It has been a very great pleasure meeting you," he said in English, extending his hand first to my mother, and then to me. Right away, I slipped my hand into my coat pocket and made a fist, to hold onto his touch.

          As soon as we were in the street, my mother dropped the cigarette and crushed it under her heel.

          "Well, I'm glad that's over with!" she said. "He's so full of himself. I just can't stand men like that."

          That first time I had disagreed with my mother we became complete strangers for a moment—but only I knew that. For the first time, I had a secret. A real secret.

If to love is to recognize yourself in another, then love is both a doubling and a uniting, is both dependent and independent. When a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? When I love and my beloved isn't there, does love exist without that person's presence? Logic has no place in this conversation; besides, we know the answer already.

          Before my mother died, she told me I would find a box of love letters written by my parents to each other before they were married.

          "It will be very interesting for you to read," she had said. "But not now."

          After her death I found the box of letters hidden in a closet. She had labeled the box for me with her customary attention to detail, but I've been afraid to open it without her. My tough, pragmatic mother had been a closet romantic all along. Her unwillingness to share her secret until after she'd reached the relative safety of death makes me feel indescribably lonesome.

          Tonight I drive past the hospital for the first time since my mother died. I would gladly go out of my way to avoid it, as I've been doing for the past three months, but there is no other way to get to my destination. Because dying is pitifully hard, lonely work, we lived out the last eight days of her life in that hospital together. All its windows are lit up now with the suffering of new inhabitants, but this also suggests to me the continuation of my mother's suffering. Her anguish is no less real for me now than it was during her final days. For anyone to say "she's not suffering anymore" is offensive and inaccurate. I drive with a vengeance, tunneling through the air as if I'm mining a world of pain, drilling through solid rock, just to get away.

          After a while, when the hospital recedes and my mood clears, I catch a glimpse of Curt, my first love. Just a flash of him, the same way I flash on Aznavour turning his back. I summon this image of Curt again, and then again, till the sputtering flash of still pictures assembles into a moving reel. I drive through this projection as gladly as a bird flies.

          When I started seeing Curt again a couple of years ago, after decades apart, I'd felt as if a germ had entered my body. I'd wondered if I had the flu. Later, when I began to understand, I told myself it was irrelevant, nothing to be troubled by, that wanting to touch him was as natural as breathing, and had only to do with sex.

          But what better description is there for love than a germ entering the body? To deny love because it's impractical or unrequited is logical, but it's absurd. The world changes, love stays.

          Loving Curt is a curious kind of self-love. The thought of kissing him, which won't happen again in this lifetime, always gives me an exquisite belly ache. I kiss him over and over in every conceivable way, to my heart's content. But my heart is never content and the reel is on an infinite loop.

          I recently overheard a playful conversation between Curt and a lovely Asian girl less than half our age. "Love," he told her, "is a risk worth taking." He is shameless. I was so angry at him, so terribly hurt, but how can I disagree? Pleasure me, make love to me. Or not. Either way, I will love as if my life depends on it. I give myself such pleasure by loving him, although that pleasure is equal to the pain. Love, every kind of love, is always exactly worth its weight in grief. [Applause.]
Aznavour's Les Bons Moments and Dylan's Cover

Aznavour interviews in Armenian.
She starts by asking, "How are you?"
He answers, "I'm tired. But I'm 80, that's to be expected."
Eventually, Aznavour lapses into English.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


When I let Curt inside, he snickers and tells me he almost picked up some gravel just now on the way up the path. Every night for years Curt used to come to my parents' house after dark and throw pebbles at my window, and every night I crept downstairs and let him in. More than once he scaled the chimney and climbed in through my bedroom window, more than 20 years ago.

          Curt sits down at the dining room table and strokes one of my mother's slim Siamese cats. They're mine now, along with the house, since my mother died last year. At first the cats stayed in my mother's room, just meowing and waiting for her return. Now they follow me around.

          Curt's 6'4 and although it's something I love about him, I always forget just what a giant he is until he's up close. The ceiling is too low; he's too big for my flimsy chairs and wobbly dining table. He overwhelms the crowded, messy room. I love it.

          He pets one of my mother's cats and tells me that in Australia his mother had a very large cat until recently. It was fond of preying on magpies, which are about the same size as cats. Even after the cat grew old and slowed down, it still chased the birds. But then one day it was devoured by magpies. First they picked out the cat's eyes, Curt says, and then they picked the rest of it clean.

          Curt smiles at me awhile, massaging the neck of my mother's cat, whose blue eyes close with pleasure.

          I experience his love most keenly when he punishes me; it's taken me some time to remember our routine, to remember that's why he's here. Nothing as pedestrian as physical violence or even sex. We start off gently, slowly. He is charming and attentive, a true gentleman. When he disappears, as cleanly as a soap bubble, I wait him out. Because when he reappears, he's always a step closer. Until he's inside my head.

          A psychologist wrote somewhere that other people are only real for us when they are frustrating, which could explain why opposites attract, and why the divorce rate is so high. So I could excuse myself because I'm hardwired. I think of everything about him that drives me nuts—he's uncompromising, he's moody and judgmental, he's obsessive, dismissive, selfish, bombastic, unpredictable—and then I picture his face at it's most contemptuous. All I want then is to kiss him into submission, to make him laugh, or come, or love.

          The Australian Magpie is one of the few animal species able to recognize its own reflection in a mirror. No wonder it gouges out the eyes of its prey.