Nari Ward, Ishion Hutchinson, and Pasolini (with a passing and re-passing through Jeffrey Gibson and Hélène Cixous)
(Spoiler alert re the movie Pasolini)
The sequence of Nari Ward, Ishion Hutchinson, and Pasolini just happened; there was no plan on my part. Nari Ward and Ishion Hutchinson were paired by the New Museum. Not unexpectedly, they were a good pair, or rather I found Hutchinson’s response to Ward’s art provided something like a blended glass, part mirror, part filter. More about that in a bit. I added Pasolini because I wanted to use my Metrograph membership; I could walk to The Metrograph from The New Museum, and Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini was playing at the right time for me to move in this way through the city. Interestingly, going to Pasolini also became the right movement for a kind of intellectual and emotional trajectory. Though this is often the case as we knit the past into some kind of coherence, in this case I struggled with making the sequence coherent, then forced a coherence, and then was struck by what came of and from the forced coherence.
I went to The New Museum for the first time about two weeks ago because a friend wanted to go there and I’ve wanted to go there for a long time. We started on the top floor with Jeffrey Gibson’s kaleidoscopic work and I passed through his work, loving the color and the immanence of movement. Later, I passed through Hélène Cixous’ odd, insightful, and romantic essay on Gibson’s work. “A dislocation is at work,” she wrote.
Then we went down three floors of Ward’s large installations and smaller, more compact, art in the exhibition called “We the People.” The making of art from found objects is not new but the poignancy of this exhibition lay in the bend between the mourning of pain and history, and the fertility and beauty of, somehow, life. I had not heard of Nari Ward before this and got a little uncomfortable when I heard that he is a Harlem-based artist and his art connects directly to dispossession, not only of the past, but directly in the effects of gentrification in the present. I moved into West Harlem in June 2018, an innocuous, older-ing, and brown woman. I belong here, and I don’t.
I had noticed, when checking out the museum before I went there with my friend, that Ishion Hutchinson was going to do a gallery talk on Nari Ward’s work. When I asked if there were still tickets available for that gallery talk, I was told there were. I was stunned. I guess this is NYC. I said, if you don’t think they’ll sell out while we, my friend and I, go through the exhibitions, I’ll wait to see Nari Ward’s work before buying a ticket for Hutchinson’s gallery talk. They assured me there would still be places, and there were, and once we’d walked through and down all the floors, I bought a ticket for the talk.
So, on Thursday, May 16, my hair freshly colored, I went back to The New Museum, and waited for Ishion Hutchinson’s gallery talk. Ishion Hutchinson, like Nari Ward, is Jamaican-diaspora African-American. He is a poet I much admire. He took us, a group of about fifteen people, through parts of “We the People,” with eloquence, diffidence, clarity, and kindness. He took us – none of us belonging to the African diaspora, though all of us share fraught histories with Nari Ward and him – through touching what ‘fugitive’ can mean in history, selfhood and art; through hearing the grandness of aspiration while living in “material fetishes of failed utopias;” through sensing, distantly – in our case, each of us, perhaps with some guilt, or shame, or desire – “an old resilience which is part of [Hutchinson’s] heritage.”
He told us about the abeng, and made its sound with his breath, his throat, and his mouth – this was a generosity of sound, not just a performance or lecture – and related it to the artwork called Savior. The abeng, he told us, makes the sound of the fugitive. He lost his voice briefly after making that sound.
He stood in front of the two pieces called Breathing Panel and, at the end of his prose response to the artwork, repeated, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe….” In that brightly-lit gallery, with chattering, whistling sounds from an adjoining artwork, with only one other African-American, a gallery attendant, in view, with one other gallery attendant who looked Latino, and me, a class- (and caste-) privileged South Asian-American, with everyone else phenotypically white, mostly women across a range of ages, I wondered who couldn’t breathe now, why couldn’t they breathe. Who is breathing? For how long?
Then he took us to the large, dark room in which Amazing Grace was installed; “a womb, a slave ship, an ark,” he called it at the beginning and towards the end. He walked us, two-by-two and holding hands, through the stroller-ship-womb.
He read his poem Sprawl and repeated “my total reversal” – the last three lines of the poem – more than three times.
And then we were done. And I got him to sign my copy of House of Lords and Commons which he not just signed, but also inscribed with “a small, drifting raft” for me.
I walked out into the sunny afternoon, exchanged cheery words with one of the outside guards, walked through Chinatown, got a text message from my daughters in which they laughed at my ‘culture-vulture’ day, got to The Metrograph, and bought a ticket to see Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini. On Instagram, I posted some pictures and wrote: it’s hard to call walking through Nari Ward’s work at The New Museum a pleasure, but perhaps one can call it a tenderness, an amazement at how beauty can come alongside, and from, ugliness and sorrow while underlying cruelty and pain remain cruelty and pain.
Pasolini starts, if not right away then very early on, with explicit, aggressive, unlovely sodomizing of two submissive young women. With Pasolini, I seemed far from the fugitive grief and anger and grace of Ward’s work and Hutchinson’s words. There was abject or abjectify-ing sex, followed by ordinary domesticity and interesting, but cold, words. “Narrative art is dead,” Pasolini told us, “we are in mourning.” “Mine is not a tale, it is a parable,” he said, “I am a form, the knowledge of which is an illusion.” To Pasolini, it appears, I, Meenakshi, am a moralist, who neither seizes the right to scandalize nor feels pleasure from being scandalized. About a third through the movie, I wrote in my running notes: so far there is very little that one might call kindness, or love, or tenderness. I watched more sex -- this time apparently not abject or abjectifying, more a kind of revolutionary procreation in a reversal of desire -- between beautiful people, with a raucous audience within the film, and us, a quiet audience outside the film, with our own arousals and withdrawals.
Pasolini sees his work as a revolution. “I’m asking you to look around,” he says, “and see the tragedy… … starting with universal education … which leads us to want … and not stop short of murder…. … an appalling tradition that is based on this idea of possessing and destroying.” *
The tenderness came at the end of the movie, when Pasolini is beaten to death on an industrial beach and the movie closes with a “clip” from a made-up movie based on Pasolini’s last work-in-progress. In the clip, Epifanio, an older-ing man, and his young companion are trying to get to Paradise and Epifanio can’t go on, so the young man says, “The end doesn’t exist. So we just wait. Something will happen.” Obvious shades of Godot, but owned here in its own terms, with its own peculiar pathos.
In the end, the tenderness comes from the unabashed living of, and looking at, life with all its ugliness, its earthiness, its longings, its sensuousness, its beauty of form and light and shadow, its flaws, and just life. In general, I prefer to look at, sense, and join joy and tenderness of a different kind, but I did feel the tenderness at the end of this movie.
Then started the struggle of knitting the coherence of my past. In my head, I stared at the obvious challenges of colonialism, racialism, the cruelty and survival of color lines of history, simplistically pitted against normative sexualization, scandalous desire, the intense ambivalence – intimacy and violence – of sex, and the cruelty and survival of power lines of history and didn’t get far, actually didn’t get anywhere, so retreated to higher abstractions.
This is what I found. In Pasolini, there is no redemption, no desire for redemption. There is (only?) a wild grasping for freedom outside a cruel system that must be broken. In Pasolini, to the degree there is redemption, redemption lies in the external viewing of a complex tale – not a parable – about an ambitious fragility, or a fragile ambition. In Ward’s work and in Hutchinson’s words, there is redemption. Pain is overcome – indeed redeemed – by creation, by making beauty and life, and, in flashes, love and joy, from the remains of things, bodies, words, feelings, life itself.
In Ward’s and Hutchinson’s work, perpetrators are on the other side; Ward’s and Hutchinson’s focus is on fugitiveness and resilience (Hutchinson’s words). In Pasolini, there is nothing fugitive, no one hides (except, perhaps, one time in the movie when Pasolini evades his interviewer’s question about what would remain if Pasolini could magically wave away everything he opposes), apparently nothing is hidden, perpetration is right there in front of you, drawing you in, people are broken down, perpetration itself is broken down.
From this forced coherence, I knitted an easy/uneasy synthesis. In the face of suffering, sometimes one wants to shove perpetration up front and say, “fuck you, I don’t care!” Other times, one holds on to beauty, to the possibility of beauty; you want to cry because you cannot but care. And, zooming out, a creation that expresses only one of these impulses will feel flat – just brutal, or just sentimental. I did not find Ward’s, Hutchinson’s, or Ferrara’s work flat.
To close, in my way: when I first decided to write about my forced coherence, I didn’t plan to include Jeffrey Gibson’s art and Hélène Cixous’ writing. But, having written thus far, I want to end with Gibson’s resplendent art. That is also life.
And Cixous wrote of his dolls, which did not figure in this current New Museum exhibition, “… these were his people, his heritage, his self-portraits. Beautiful dreams, realized, and guarding their secrets.”
*Note: I wrote these words in my running notes. I’m pretty certain all the words and the logic they convey are accurate, but I’m not so sure about the ellipses.
My bad child practice is as follows: when I notice a feeling of shame or awkwardness, because something I did wasn’t “right,” I take a moment to stop, pay attention to that feeling fully, get as aware as possible of the feeling and what I think generated it, then I tell myself, and this is very important, “it’s OK, I’m just a bad child.” I find this releases myself and others. Below is a longer explanation of this practice and its effects.
In the introspective work I have been doing over the last few months, I have been focusing particularly on expressions or evidence of “shadow,” most simply areas or times of discomfort, when I feel a rush of hurt or shame and am inclined to blame someone or something outside myself or put myself down. “Shadow” shows up and may be discovered through any number of other feelings (including positive feelings), but my spectrum of hurt and shame is most pernicious and appears to be a large tip of my shadow iceberg.
A few weeks ago, I started to notice, and dwell in, my hurt and shame whenever I felt them in small ways that normally I would do nothing about; typically such small twinges of hurt and shame got internally absorbed or accommodated. I would cover over the little hurt or shame and move on. The bad child practice came about because I started noticing my own accumulation of absorbed or accommodated hurt and shame. I started noticing each feather of hurt and shame as it was added. The feather metaphor comes from something quoted by a woman scientist in a recent NYT article about the Salk Institute: “A ton of feathers still weighs a ton.” I also noticed, by observation and being told, that others had similar “feathers” of hurt and shame, for which, in most cases, I felt relatively easily compassionate. From my history, I know I have a thing about being a bad child. I think most people do. As all these reflections pottered around in my mind, the bad child practice emerged.
I firmly decided that every time I felt a feather of hurt or shame, I would look at it, be as conscious of the feeling as I could be and then let go of the part in which I put myself down; and told myself, “it’s ok, I’m just a bad child.” It’s allowing myself to be flawed, without self-indulgence, avoidance, or accommodation. This practice is similar to what a friend and others have called “self-compassion,” and, most crucially, it connects my condition of “bad child” with bad child in every other person. For me, the bad child practice only works if I consciously, attentively, and kindly join compassion for others with compassion for myself, in both directions. In other words, it is a simultaneous release for myself and others to be flawed, to have shadow. This is not covering over or condoning. Indeed, there may be need to avoid, very consciously, denial, or accommodation of self or others. There may be need to speak, inquire, listen, act, and engage for “justice,” for acknowledgement, for reparation, and for forgiveness – in relation to myself, or someone else, or both, or many. I look at such cases closely. Always, I can’t resolve them, at least not right away or completely, but I add what I learn from this attention to the knowledge and questions that my purposeful “good child” will use when it’s time again for her to reflect and act.
What I mean by forgiveness has also evolved, and, recently, I realized it is not a simple release of the origin of hurt and the hurt itself. It is not letting go in a simple way. The hurt does not go away. If small, it may be forgotten. But if something brings the memory back, even if unconsciously in the senses and the body, the hurt is still there and there may be a harking back to which another person may say, “how long will you carry that? When will you get over it?” In turn, such a response may lead to a rehashing of the original infraction with all the defensiveness and judgments that such hashing involves. However, in many cases, what is needed is attention to what is present that is bringing back the memory in one’s body and feeling.
With this understanding of hurt, forgiveness means a two-fold layering. First, it requires a mutual acknowledgement that the hurt doesn’t go away. Once there is hurt it is always in your body.* The “mutual” may involve another person, or people, or be wholly within yourself. The second layer of forgiveness, folded over, is fully uncovering and making explicit that what one feels for the other person, or oneself, or the world, or some combination of these is so much more than the hurt. In the simplest terms of forgiving another person, this means saying, “the hurt will never go away but my relationship with you is so much more than that hurt. Who you are for me is so much more than that hurt.”
I acknowledge that there are hurts so grievous that there may be very little, or even nothing else, in relation to the person or people who committed the acts that hurt. In such situations, the forgiveness, when one can get there, is inside oneself, and also in relation to the world: “I am so much more than that hurt. And (if one can get there) the world has and gives so much more than that hurt.”
Circling back to my “bad child practice,” it is a form of forgiveness for oneself and others. The bad child part of me will never go away, and I am so much more than the bad child part of me.
The bad child practice is not a license to harm others. It is a practice to engage and get beyond hurt and shame.
So what happens if my hurt and/or shame issue from an interaction that is deeply hurtful, harmful, unfair, or destructive? In my bad child practice, when I look closely and with full awareness at my feelings of discomfort in small instances, it builds a practice and capacity I use in larger and more significant instances, to notice and sit with the effects on myself and on others. If these effects include harm or potential harm, the next step is not the bad child practice of “it’s ok, I’m just a bad child,” but a conscious effort to avoid the most common traps of covering over (denial or avoidance), or accommodation (silencing oneself or putting oneself down), or attack/defensiveness (you are as much or more at fault, as bad or worse than me!); and, instead of these, to engage in honest, flawed, vulnerable, and courageous ways with oneself and any others involved. I don’t always make this effort; it’s exhausting and I fear anger and judgment in response to engagement I might initiate. I can’t resolve everything, I tell myself. Sometimes that is a reasonable decision, but I also risk slipping into an insidious practice of accommodation – of myself or of others or both. That’s a topic for another piece.
If you want to try out my bad child practice, here’s a caution. As with any practice, the bad child practice can decline into a narrowing habit rather than an opening into new and deeper awareness and reflection, so I would try it for a short period (two weeks?), see what you learn from it, and check once in a while that it isn’t becoming a crutch.
At its best, my bad child practice has made me a kinder and more courageous (risk-taking!) person who is more patient with both joy and pain, and even with boredom and waiting.
* And there is also multi-generational transmission, a topic too large and complex for this small piece, but definitely worth adding to one’s deepening attention, awareness, and reflections.
Acknowledgement: As with anything I write and any knowledge I have, the sources are out in the world as much as in me. Usually, this does not need to be said. For this piece, I want to explicitly acknowledge that it draws on what I have learned over years of engaging with the wisdom of colleagues (Public Conversations Project, University of San Diego, RISE San Diego, and others), friends (my wise and loving friends in San Diego and elsewhere in the world), family (my mother, my daughters, and others), and knowledge traditions (academic, story-telling, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, psychotherapy, and others). What I’ve written here comes from how all of these sources have helped me understand – an ongoing process – myself and my world. If you see your knowledge in here, it probably is your knowledge in here. Thank you.
The title of Zora Neale Hurston’s most famous book comes from the sentence: “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” This is an extraordinary sentence in a book full of extraordinary sentences. I read the book weeks after walking, for the first time, through the Epic Abstraction exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In that first encounter with Epic Abstraction, I was astonishingly moved. I don’t cry in public, usually, so I didn’t cry, but I’m sure my eyes looked bulbous and unusually filmed, for that was how they felt. My breathing was thrown off by some of the pieces; I felt a wonder, and a recognition. I felt emotional in a way that was both full and hollow. I wouldn’t have been able to say, with any truth, what it was about any of those paintings that made me feel this way. If you insisted, I’d have made up something which may have sounded eloquent, even profound, or may have stumbled out in some convoluted fashion.
I had never before had this kind of first degree emotional response to art in a museum or gallery, and certainly never to abstract art. Of course, this had everything to do with me: who I was standing in those galleries, who I am today. But whatever the sources of this response, the effect was a completely new understanding of this art.
Until this particular viewing of this particular exhibition, I’ve appreciated abstract art for its innovations in form, its deconstructions of the figurative, its intellectual conundrums, its challenge to knowledge and certainty, and its invitations to sense and know in new ways. But all of this was cognitive; if emotion arose at all it came from a secondary process of narrative meaning-making. This particular, January 2019, encounter with epic abstraction – mostly very, very large and very, very abstract pieces of art* -- was different in that these pieces simply in their size, form, color, and juxtaposition evoked a great helplessness and tearfulness. These words look silly and excessive, but my feelings at that time way exceeded these words.
Which brings me back to Zora Neale Hurston’s sentence about eyes watching God. “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” In my reading of this sentence, it’s not about faith in God, though the people she was writing about may well have been God-fearing. The sentence gets its power from bearing narrative witness to a moment of extraordinary humanness – only being able to live, only pressing to live, with all of its terror, helplessness, grandeur, consciousness, God. This was nothing so limited as “staring at the dark.” This was emotion, longing, life (and death) beyond words and cognition, but not reduced to animal instinct. Hurston has an animal figure – a dog – in the same hurricane-driven floods as her narrator, Janie, and the other people in “the muck.” The dog’s eyes were crazed, phenomenally “staring at the dark,” staring wildly at anything it could see, desperate to live through aggression. It turns out the dog was rabid. Even if Hurston hadn’t needed the madness for a narrative twist, I don’t think she would have said its eyes were watching God.
I returned to the Epic Abstraction show a couple of weeks ago, eager to repeat and record my emotional experience of the first time. In the beginning, I thought too much. Feel, I told myself. That didn’t work. Then I just let myself write in response to pieces, and feeling returned, filtered through words, thinner, a trace, but there.
Though I was not in a hurricane during that first visit to Epic Abstraction, and I was not – in a very real, palpable way – on the verge of dying, in retrospect I appropriated Hurston’s metaphor to understand my experience that first time. That first time, my eyes peeped through the art at God. That art, that day, expressed humanness beyond words and cognition, the fullness of human desire to live, experienced and expressed with the sensate and cognitive sensibilities of our complex bodies. We are not machines. One day an artificially intelligent entity may mimic, with great sophistication and nimbleness, every human function, but if it is cut off from corporeal humanness, it will only be able to formulate helplessness; it will not feel the helplessness of “eyes watching God.”
What does all of this have to do with moral authority?
For a long time I have been struck by the moral clarity and power of the writings – including fiction, non-fiction, and speeches – of people who’ve survived sharp and sustained exploitation by other groups of people.** More recently, I’ve had opportunities to work with people who’ve lived through histories and direct experience of sharp and sustained pain. I’ve had such opportunities before and I’ve risen to them well – thoughtfully, kindly, in facilitator-speak holding space for them to be themselves through the hard transitions of survival and being that they were living. But I was different in my recent, deep and lengthy, opportunity. I had my own experience of sharp and sustained pain. It was urgent enough that I couldn’t simply dismiss it as small relative to the pain of others, to the histories of grinding indignity and uncertainty that many others live with. Rationally I know my situation is not bad; of course I’m not teetering on the edge of physical or emotional survival. But, emotionally, I’ve had to contend with very real helplessness, and, in the work I had to do with colleagues in San Diego, I was inexorably pulled to feel it, express it, and connect it to the helplessness of others. In this work, my understanding of moral authority deepened.
A few days ago, I grandiloquently told a group that I am currently deeply interested in how desire and emotion – especially love, fear, and shame – are foundational elements of moral authority. What is moral authority? one of them asked.
Here is my answer, today: moral authority is the agency with which you relate to others, through words, actions, metaphors, images. It is essentially social, both contained by and spilling out of convention. In Buberian terms, it is the action of “I” in relation to “you.” In Biblical terms, in part via Jean-Paul Lederach, it is seeing the face of God, or not, in others. It is the living of desire and helplessness, mediated by socio-economic and political structures, shaped by linguistic possibilities and the grace or awkwardness of particular bodies at particular times, and expressed, consciously and unconsciously, in every act of living. Mostly, moral authority is expressed and heard as dogma or debatable logic – sometimes self-focused and self-serving, sometimes prosaic and parochial, sometimes ineffably greater-than and universal. In my view, moral authority gains an enormous power and tenderness when it draws on the lived tension between desire and helplessness, mediated by emotions that may be described as love, fear, shame, joy, anger, pain, and awe. Everyone experiences that spectrum of emotions. In my experience, those who are more aware of that spectrum in themselves have more clarity and kindness of purpose, whether within and in relation to the smallest units of dyads or families or to the largest of collectives and, even, to humanity and life in general.
The Epic Abstraction exhibition surprised me by evoking my own helplessness at losing, and letting go of, my partner of twenty-eight years. Zora Neale Hurston gave me a metaphor for that helplessness. I’m still figuring out how that helplessness, and its attendant emotions, are shaping and will shape my actions in relation to others. Certainly, it’s already made me much more intensely aware of love in my life, love that I give and love that I get. It mostly makes me a kinder – some would say “softer”, lol – thinker (though a recent exchange makes me think that I am softer in some ways but clearer and firmer in others). It’s influencing questions and dilemmas in my fiction. I don’t yet know how the effects will show up in my political activity. We’ll see. A new Presidential election is coming up. The last election made me angry and hurt. It didn’t quite reduce me to helplessness, but I do feel fear and uncertainty and those, along with the thread of helplessness in my personal life, are shaping, will shape, the moral authority that drives my purposes and actions.
* Notes on the structure and pieces, along with some photographs, are appended below.
** Parenthetically, I’ve also been struck by how slowly and in very limited ways such writings have been acknowledged, read, engaged, and drawn on by dominant groups.
Raw notes on, and pictures of, the exhibition, first from my second visit, and then some memories from my first visit
Coming up to the Epic Abstraction show from the southern end, I pass Kiki Smith’s Lilith, to me fearful and vigilant, sort of at the other end of desire and moral authority from Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God. If you think of this spectrum as circular rather than a straight line with infinitely divergent ends, this end is the same as the beginning. To my eyes, Lilith looks like a precursor to Mystique in X-Men. A group of Euro-American people – two women and one man – just stopped to look at Lilith. Two of them are brightly, innocently, fascinated, especially by her eyes. The third, a woman, walks away saying, “It’s too scary, I don’t like it.”
The first piece of art on my right as I entered the Epic Abstraction exhibition is New York #2 by Hedda Sterne. It’s equally divided between light and dark. Her signature is on the left, in the middle of the vertical plane. My eye is drawn to the dark, the tunnel, the sewer. My mind is working too hard to see and interpret form to allow attention to feeling.
Next comes Cy Twombly’s Dutch Interior, which gives me the pleasure and permission of utter foolishness, at scale. “I don’t know what to do.” The artist is present in the action. Time passing. The space covered, not covered, done.
Jackson Pollock’s November 28, 1950. Museum clickbait. Overseen. Too confident. Is it his ego I resist? Is it my ego that resists? Moving on.
Clyfford Still’s 1950-E. I’m comforted by the burgundy at the bottom. It feels right, balanced, the burgundy, left bottom; blue, right top-ish. Much more black than white, as much grey as black. A comforting painting.
The last painting in this first space I entered from the Lilith stair is Conflict (1956-57) by Alfonso Ossorio. My eyes were drawn to this piece when I entered – it’s opposite Sterne’s New York– but I left it until last. It makes me feel alive: the red heart, the three-dimensional explosiveness, with textured paint of varying thickness. The color palate is human – blood, shit, skin, bone.
In the middle, more or less, of this first space is Barbara Hepworth’s Single Form (Eikon) (1937-38). I ignored this sculpture the first time I walked through this show, sort of dismissed it. What was that about? It’s too classic, too phallic, too heavy, too large, too squarely confident, too masculine, derivative. The sculpture feels like my past, unlike Lilith and Booker’s Raw Attraction (coming up). But when I force myself to look at it more closely, I’m moved by the wings of the pillar as it expands up a little, by the trickles or ripples down the sides of the square block pedestal, including on the broken corner of the block.
Most of the paintings in the Pollock and Rothko rooms slip past me in their familiarity. Kazuo Shiraga’s red and black untitled (1958) is in the Pollock room, right near the entrance to the exhibition from that end. I like it a lot. In the Rothko room, his No. 21 (1949) stands out. It feels uncertain, fading. I expected it to be a significantly early or late painting, but it is dated right in the middle of his painting life. The other piece of art in the Rothko room that stands out to me is Isamu Noguchi’s Kouros, a very large sculpture made of pink Georgian marble. Kouros is a youth, male. This sculpture is not a young man. Or maybe it is. It’s smooth, confident, supple, large, and fragile.
The room that really drew my imagination on this visit is the one dominated by Chakaia Booker’s poky, horny, piping, leaking vagina (Raw Attraction) in the corner of the room, flanked on the right by another very large painting (untitled, 1960) by Clyfford Still, this time red is the dominant color, not as comforting as 1950-E (which, by the way, looks ominous from this seat in front of untitled 1960; the black and grey merge from this angle). Still leaves a few light striations, almost drips in the black and in the red. One of these is in the black, right in the center, in the bottom half of the painting. It looks forgotten, a flaw he deliberately forgot.
On the left flank of Raw Attraction is Mark Bradford’s Duck Walk (2016). Wow, what a fantastic painting, mixed media. It makes me come alive. The left panel is mostly white with yellow-mustard in the middle, the right panel is black in the middle, yellow swirling out. I see anime faces in the left panel. I like that there is no red in the painting. The color palette is spare. White, black, yellow, and some beige. [Comment added while typing these notes in: His name had sounded familiar, but I only now remembered why. He recently added What Hath God Wrought to the Stuart Collection of remarkable outdoor art at UCSD.]
Completing this space are two of my favorite paintings in this show, in large part because they are side by side: Inoue Yūichi’s Kanzan (Cold Mountain, 1966) with stylized renditions of the characters for cold and for mountain and Franz Kline’s Black, White, and Gray, 1959.
Almost ending the making of this space is Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 70, 1961. The emotional impact of these artworks in this made space is as much due to the curation, the placement of a work in the space and relative to other pieces, as to each separate artwork itself. And then there is the fabulous, hermetic, almost 21st century video game image – Judit Reigl’s Guano (Menhir), 1959-64, a layered painting: like history, like death, like a reproduction of fallowness – that transitions me into the extraordinary female-human-20th century space dominated by Louise Nevelson’s Mrs. N.’s Palace, 1964-77.
-----End of direct notes ---
The second trip, of necessity, because of a phone call I was committed to making, ended there. I don’t have notes from the first trip, all I have are memories that are now thoughts in the present. I remember loving the unapologetic size, steadfast standing in place, and geometrical complexity in monochrome grey of Mrs. N.’s Palace, surrounded by sharp-edged images created by men, and also rounded, even sentimental, images created by women. Reds drew me on that first trip as well. I gazed at Alma Thomas’s Red Roses Sonata (1972) and Elizabeth Murray’s Terrifying Terrain (1989-90), and felt the threat and harmony of each. I shied away from, then stared at, Thornton Dial’s Shadows of the Field (2008); now it looks ominously like a faded, tattered flag, millennia before a fossil, though this soft tissue of history and affect is lived in consciousness or disappears. The color palette of Frank Bowling’s Night Journey (1969-70), the yellow falling through the horizontal center, held me, though I found the continents distracting in how they historicized color and shape. Finally, the exhibition ended (or began, if you came in that way) with Yayoi Kusama’s No. B. 62 (1962): mostly evenly red shells or scales, in retrospect a carapace, perhaps the curved surface of that odd creature, a pangolin, laid out in two dimensions.
Postscript: I was hesitant to post this piece, even after proofreading it and uploading the photos. This morning, a beautiful, sunny spring day in NYC, I had to make explicit the life and joy I also see in and through the helplessness and moral authority. If you live, you fall in love with life again (thank you, Andrea, for your Facebook cover picture), even if only in small ways, and in that falling in love, you claim life for yourself, and often claim it for others as well. Janie (and Zora Neale Hurston) did that, the Epic Abstraction artists did that. Reading Hurston, and walking through the exhibition, and looking at the sunlight today, I am doing that.
SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS WHICH LED TO A REVISED VERSION OF THIS PIECE
A few hours ago, I posted some reflections initiated by an exchange that troubled and challenged me at my local supermarket. The piece went from thoughts arising from that exchange to grappling with the politics of the Women’s March and also my own desire to want both to press for justice and equity and not to succumb to a spirit of exclusion based on color, ethnicity, religion, or even class. The desire for the first is because justice and equity just make sense. The desire for the second comes because, in my heart I feel that by including you (any you) I challenge you to fully see, include, and respect me, as well as the many others that you (as I) may not fully see, or dismiss, or fear.
After posting my reflections, I kept being bugged by second thoughts and discomfort even though I didn’t really feel I was “wrong.” After having conversations in my head with young leaders in San Diego whom I trust and learn from, I think I’ve identified a couple of key sources of my discomfort and second thoughts about the piece as I first posted it.
First, while I tell a sensitive story about hurt and division in my neighborhood and asked for all women to stand for all women, I seemed only to thank people with more structural power who showed up at the Women’s March without showing how I (or others) can hold them accountable.
Secondly, I seemed to focus on the spirit of inclusion in Martin Luther King Jr’s conception of “beloved community” without clarifying and emphasizing the call for justice and equity in such a community.
I’ve changed what I wrote. Now I say, more simply, that we should welcome all allies, and hold the more powerful to more effort to see women different from themselves and to stand for those women as much or more than themselves. I would like all women to stand for all women, but, there is no getting around it, justice and equity require asymmetrical effort.
Further, I make explicit in the revised version that the inclusiveness of “beloved community” also calls for attention to and action on economic, political, legal, cultural, health, food, environment and other issues of justice and equity. I think I took this commitment on my part for granted, but you can’t know this part of my commitment to “beloved community” if I don’t say it.
On Thursday evening, a few days ago, I felt a cold coming on, so I went to my local supermarket at Broadway and 138th Street in Manhattan. The lines weren’t too long but they were very slow. Because I had only two boxes of teabags, a woman in one of the lines – in her sixties, evidently Spanish-speaking – motioned me, and then insisted that I stand in front of her in the line. The man behind her – evidently African-American and not Spanish-speaking, probably in his fifties – looked unhappy with my move so I asked him if he was ok with it. “No comment,” he said, but was clearly upset. The woman insisted I stay in front of her. Since I had only the two boxes and would pay quickly, I decided to stay, but I maintained inquiring eye contact with the man. I may even have gestured a question. In response, he burst out, “they voted for Trump, these people.”
“Well, African-Americans also voted for Trump,” I offered.
“34% of Hispanics voted for Trump,” he said. “Only 29% voted for Obama.”
“They voted for him and now see what’s happening,” he continued. “He’s screwing them.”
“We must unite,” I responded, more weakly and blandly than I felt.
“God is going to blow it all up and only then it’ll change.” He said something like that.
“I don’t think God operates that way.” Again I sounded a bit unconvincing, in part because I can’t claim a God.
“Oh yes, he does,” he said, and cited Biblical catastrophes visited by God.
My turn was coming up, the woman was between us (silent throughout our exchange), and I didn’t feel I could debate the Bible with him in that supermarket line, so I shifted my gaze and moved towards the cashier.
I didn’t check his numbers. I still haven’t. I don’t think they are relevant. What is relevant is that the man felt hurt and disrespected by what he saw as Hispanic patterns of voting – and probably by other things as well – and so he sought to hurt and disrespect the woman in front of him. Not once did he say anything about me jumping the line. Evidently his complaint was with her.*
No doubt there were all kinds of things in that lived scene that I didn’t hear, didn’t see, and didn’t know, including ways in which I acted and spoke and was seen and heard. So my interpretations may be flawed. But what stood out for me was the man’s veering towards “(God) blowing it all up,” and my response, “we must unite.”
I was struck by our range, but, while I wanted conciliation, I’ve also seen, over and over again, that people who use the language of “blowing it up” force the rest of us to face really hard questions. Of course, by “blowing it all up” neither the man at the supermarket nor I mean a bomb, though for people at the extreme end of hurt, desperation or political strategy, “blowing it up” might mean bombs or other forms of palpable destruction with human cost. In our supermarket conversation, “blowing it up” referred to the collapsing of an existing socio-political/socio-economic order.***
That conversation and the mullings it produced were still with me as, slowly and with a cold, I went to the Women’s March.
I went to the first March in San Diego in 2017. Last year I was out of the country. This year I was determined to join the March again. Why? I was asked. Which one? It’s controversial, I was told.
I hadn’t read or heard anything that made the 2019 Women’s March so out of bounds for me. I didn’t care which one I went to. I planned to go to the one closest to me, on the Upper West Side.
I got there late. I worried I’d missed it. But there were still people coming, though many were also leaving.**
My first glimpse of the tail end of the marchers was a dance group. Watching this dance group of young women made me smile. This is how women march. What a contrast to military or militant marching.
Of the marchers who remained or came late like me, the vast majority were women and were young. Most were white. From my first march in San Diego, I have heard and read discomfort with the preponderance of white women at these women’s marches. I am grateful that these women have come out to march.
As I wandered the end locations of the March, two images stuck with me. I took a photograph of one but not the other, so I’ve decided that, for parity, I would post neither.
The one I didn’t take was of a couple in their early sixties – white, exceptionally well-groomed, quite obviously wealthy. They stood quietly at one corner of the parade ending, at 44th and 6th Avenue, a nicely-finished sign with big letters proclaiming “lock him up” in front of them. They had come out to protest an administration I deeply oppose, and in my mind I thanked them for that. I was also struck by how unabashedly they showed their privilege and wealth. They didn’t hide. They showed up as they are, which means that they are allowing themselves to be seen, and questioned, and held accountable as they are. So while I do thank them for showing up, I am asking myself what it would mean to hold them accountable. In what way? For what?
The other image that struck me was three young women of color sitting, again quietly, in a very picturesque way in a relatively central spot, with a sign that read: “If you don’t stand for all women, you stand for no woman.” Yes, I thought. They may not have intended what I interpreted. I read their sign as a version of “we must unite.” As with the couple, they sat there simply, as themselves.
A call to “stand for all women” is often used as a reprimand to wealthier, and especially white, women who often appear oblivious and self-serving to women of color and lower-income women.**** I chose at first to read the slogan as we must stand for all women, in all directions of color and class. I do believe that the more we stand for each other, especially in a functional democracy – or one whose functioning we want to maintain and improve! – the more we claim agency and can hold each other accountable. That said, after much thought I’ve left that dream of parity aside and can only say, more simply, that we should welcome all allies, and hold the more powerful to more effort to see women different from themselves and to stand for those women as much or more than themselves. I would like all women to stand for all women, but, there is no getting around it, justice and equity require asymmetrical effort.
Where does that leave me? Still veering towards “we must unite,” which is not the same as I must allow myself to be blind or co-opted. And I still want people who veer towards extreme structural change to force us to look at very hard questions and to push us to make change. But don’t really plan blow it all up, physically and with human casualties. That I and others will speak and act against.
(Added a bit later…)
I read the NYT article about the fracturing of the Women’s March over charges of anti-Semitism after going to the March, in fact after writing the first draft of this blog post. It slipped past me before the March, and I deliberately didn’t read it before writing the first draft of this piece because I didn’t want to write reactively to that article. I’m glad I read it later. The charge of anti-Semitism is a very serious one. At this point, my thoughts are as follows:
Do I think Tamika Mallory should have repudiated Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism clearly and loudly? Yes.
Does her evading that strong and clear repudiation mean that I should not have joined her and other women (and men) in showing up to contest our current administration? No.
Does her evasion mean that I won’t listen to and try to understand her explanation for why she supports Farrakhan? No.
Does her leadership and activism in the Women’s March mean that I wouldn’t hold her and others in the leadership of the Women’s March accountable for not calling out hurtful and dangerously agitating anti-Semitism? No.
I don’t want, and based on current information, don’t plan to exclude Tamika Mallory and the Women’s Marchers from my community; another way of saying it is that I don’t plan to leave their community. I don’t want Tablet Magazine and hurt, disrespected, and fearful Jewish Americans to exclude me, a marcher. I want Tamika Mallory and the Women’s Marchers to call out racism and injustice in my country, I am grateful that they do it, and I will join them. I want Tablet Magazine and others to call out anti-Semitism when they see, hear, or feel it and I will hear them. Ideally I would want all of us to call all of it out. Here, as elsewhere, I push for the living of “beloved community,” but beloved community does not mean hard questions must not be raised.
The inclusiveness of Martin Luther King Jr’s “beloved community” also calls for attention to and action on justice and equity – in our world this includes political, legal, educational, cultural, health, food, environment and other issues. In the inclusive community I want and will press for, I want hard questions to be raised and I will act for change.
*For those who are interested, when I was done, I thanked her, touching her coat at her wrist, and waved to him uncertainly, and left.
** The photo of the posters by the subway stop is of a poster drop off and exchange spot. To me, it appeared touchingly trusting and civic.
***Metaphorically, “blowing it up” is used in many contexts, usually indicating some kind of drastic resetting. In many of those situations as well, I tend to veer towards a version of “we must unite.”
**** Worth noting: though I am brown, I am on the higher end of the income spectrum in my neighborhood. I may well have seemed oblivious and self-serving to the African-American man whose line I jumped, and others, at the supermarket. His apparent anger towards the woman between us may well also have been anger towards me or what I represented.
Sitting down to write this over brunch while my children were with their father, I found myself intensely irritated by the jangling Christmas song that was playing, that was pounding with the most monotonous rhythm between my ears and through my head. How would I write this thoughtful, wise, affecting piece, I wondered.
And this description of my state in that moment of starting this piece contains all of what intense living meant this year and how beauty and anxiety (or joy and pain; or being alive and being irritated) are always present. For this year, 2018, has hammered me much like that Christmas song (and that first song was followed by another of the same, with the same kind of nostalgic chiming that makes me want to hit my head against the wall with the same slowed-down-sledgehammer rhythm).*
In 2018, I lost my home, and got a new home. I’ve been surrounded by loving old friends, some of whom want me to be stylish and sexy. I’ve found new friends who enjoy my being foolish and want me to be wise. I’ve listened to sorrows that aren’t directly my own with more care, which means more boldly, more uncertainly, more tenderly, some mix of those. I’ve been slapped numb by Trump, and RISE San Diego Gen IV has filled my heart. I’ve stepped out into shocking aliveness in NYC and I’ve returned to heartache, tacos, longboarding, coyotes, and sunsets in San Diego. I’ve waited, and waited. I’ve struggled to write and publish and I’ve written gloriously (and will publish soon!). I’ve continued a family history with my mother and brother. I’ve built on my family history with my daughters who are heading (I think, I hope!) towards knowing and loving me more fully than anyone. I’ve been heartsick that another family history has ended. Pretty much every thought and feeling slowed. Parts of me have left. I’m uncertain about whether some have returned. Will I know if they do? It’s still hard to admit I’ve cried. I’ve lost myself and found myself, over and over, and, often enough, I haven’t been sure which was which.
In the midst of all this intense living, I started dipping back into Buddhist writing and rediscovered a teacher, Chogyam Trungpa. From him, I found my ‘mantra’ for this holiday season and my transition into 2019. Beauty and anxiety are always present. The book I am reading focuses on anxiety or suffering. The shadow side of anxiety and suffering are happiness and joy, or beauty. The logic, sort-of, is that once you truly know the glass is always half-empty (there are always sources and effects of anxiety and suffering), you can enjoy it being half-full (there are always sources and effects of beauty and joy). The tricky part is that the 'half-full' and 'half-empty' aren’t easily distinguished. Beauty and anxiety are always present. I’ve always known this, and now I know it more deeply.
In the last fifteen years, I’ve shied away from both beauty and anxiety. My life had large and endless swirls of beauty, mainly relational – especially the joy of loving and being loved by my children and spouse – and somewhat physical – especially the sensuous beauty of light, water, earth, movement, and touch. Not much of the intellectual, so a large part of me was shoved into dormancy, and profoundly missed. In that state I was like the Bollywood victim who was cast into liquid oxygen by the Bollywood mob boss he had transgressed. The liquid didn’t let the transgressor live, and the oxygen didn’t let him die (hence, he was left suspended in a wickedly ironic "living death"). Like that transgressor, I couldn’t fully live the beauty in my life because part of me was sedated; also I was afraid if I enjoyed it too much it would be taken away. And I couldn’t fully live the anxiety because, well, my life was so full of sensuous beauty and so, so much love, how could I permit myself the indulgence of anxiety? So I lived, mostly ok, in a slightly flattened state – sometimes happy and smiling, sometimes complaining.
This year the anxiety grew exponentially more intense, and the beauty exploded.
I could have denied one or the other; or, more familiarly, I could have spread myself across a neutered middle. But my friends, my family, New York City, and San Diego (special bow, again, to RISE) didn’t let me. I have them both – beauty and anxiety, joy and suffering – all the time. Sometimes one rises more to consciousness, sometimes the other does. I don’t deny either.
* Of course, this music celebrates the birth of the man (or Son of God) who taught generous and vulnerable love.
Today is Thanksgiving in the US, at its best a celebration of commensality, of gathering and being warm together. Over the years, I have fallen into the practice of using this day to name what I am thankful for, often irritating family and friends when I insist that we go around and each speak about what we are thankful for. My happiness in those moments was usually related in an immediate way to the conditions of those moments – the wellness of being with family and friends, the suffusing warmth of sharing food and drink.
This is my first Thanksgiving in a dramatically new life. I am living in a small apartment in West Harlem (I am deeply thankful for this apartment), I am far from the friends with whom I’ve spent Thanksgiving for most of the last fourteen years, and preparing to cook a full Thanksgiving meal for my younger daughter and a friend of hers, by myself, for the first time in my life.
It is a cold day in New York, perhaps the coldest Thanksgiving since 1871. When I woke up, I walked without my spectacles to the front of the apartment to gaze at the sunlight in the street. I blurrily saw a squirrel sitting on a branch in the middle of my vision, its tail fluffed and pressed closely to its back so that, to my unfocused eyes, it looked like a single furry protrusion from the branch, taut and very dignified. I watched with an inordinate excitement and started thinking about Thanksgiving.
In the background, to which I soon returned, text messages ping-ed in from friends honoring our relationships, one to each and one to all, with love and gratitude.
Thankfulness comes easily to me; I have much to be thankful for.
In a stream of consciousness, I thought about various people, relationships, and aspects of my life that I am thankful for. My thoughts snagged at a resistance to being thankful for my children. Of course I love my children, I must be thankful for them, I thought. I’m thankful for my children, I can’t say it, I thought. What the heck is that about, I thought.
And here, provisionally, is where that question brought me. To the first degree, I am not thankful for my children because my relationships with them do not rely on desire and choice. This does not mean that frissons of desire and choice have not been parts of those relationships from their conception and even today, but desire and choice are no longer dominant, if ever they were. Trying to figure this out and give words to these thoughts-about-feelings-and-being, I discovered that I have a similar resistance to being thankful for my mother. In some way, being thankful for these relationships is so obvious, it seems ridiculous to say it.
So what is it about this category of relationships? Is this simply about mother-daughter relationships? From what I gather, not all mothers and daughters have such relationships. It definitely starts with my mother, though, this deep knowledge that such relationships exist.
My mother presented me (and my brother) with a relationship that fundamentally did not depend on choice. That did not mean that she controlled us, though she tried. As an aside, though she tried to control what we did, for the most part she did not try to control what we thought. Most simply, for her, her love with all its power and shelter was a fact of life, and that I was her daughter with all of what that could mean was also a fact of life, whether or not I loved her. As it happens, her love, for all its flaws, has been immanent enough in my life that, for me, she isn’t a choice either. Luckily for me, she ‘isn’t a choice’ in a way that brings love and care into my life (flowing in and out). This is the same with my daughters. I have no choice in relation to them, in a way that brings love and care flowing out and into my life. I can tell them, as I do, that they have no choice either, but eventually they will have to know, and feel, this themselves, or not.
These are relationships of being, in a very ordinary way beyond desire and thankfulness. In these relationships, one may be thankful for the health or wellbeing of the other person but one is no longer thankful for the relationship itself. One just bears it, in most cases mostly happily; it is part of one’s being, repeatedly imprinted in one’s neural activity and architecture.
So here is how my feeling-translated-into-thoughts goes: there are relationships beyond thankfulness, beyond choice, and by extension beyond desire. These are not necessarily prescribed forms of relationship; they can be achieved, I feel, in long relationships of deep intimacy, whether these involve strands of kinship, romance, eros, friendship, or perhaps even, most simply, extended physical or intellectual practice of working side-by-side. This kind of relationship seems to take a great intensity, or great durability, or both. Usually, I would propose, one doesn’t get to such relationships without phases and elements of desire and thankfulness, but at some point one reaches a state in that relationship which surpasses thankfulness for that relationship.
Recognizing that I have such relationships, of course I can, and do, feel thankful – but cerebrally more than emotionally – that I have such relationships, several of them. The cerebral ‘gratitude’ or ‘thankfulness’ is an abstract word, almost a prayer or obligatory chant to protect my good fortune. When I try to dive into and find words for the feelings below this particular meta-gratitude – prosaically, what does it mean in terms of feeling for me to be thankful for my mother, for example – I get lost in a complex entanglement of my being with another’s.
On this Thanksgiving then, I found three forms of glowing response to the world around me.
Wonder at the puffy, albeit blurred, squirrel in the tree.
Thankfulness that I have many people who have chosen to care for me and whom I – with elements of joy, desire, satisfaction, and frustration – choose to care for, and also that I have access to communities, places, and things – that I regard and experience with desire and joy – that make me feel well.
And a gaping incomprehension, a kind of expansiveness – quite different from thankfulness – as I consider relationships that seem to transcend choice or thankfulness.
Post-script: The bulk of this piece was written on Thanksgiving Day, which was November 22 this year. As I keep turning it around in my thoughts, I see holes here, gaps there, both logical and substantive. But I will leave it – this piece, these words – in this state of background ferment because it is about feelings, not thoughts, and so inevitably obscured and inexact.
P.S. 2: For those who are curious, my Thanksgiving dinner turned out very well!
Anna Seghers’ Transit is astoundingly contemporary, though completed in 1942.* In the most practical, palpable ways, the book describes the pillar-to-post, paper-and-more-paper, and rules-petty-power/lessness-and-helplessness of trying to cross a national border when you are wretched. The novel was written in the middle of the 20th century, the nation-state-century, when the science of borders became so fine that it could define in OR out, pure OR impure, and even what morally belonged as opposed to what must be kept out, just by whether you filled in the correct forms correctly, which allowed the gatekeepers to see quickly the lines that ran on one side and on the other side of you. A primary line running right through you did not, does not, bode well.
I entered a mild form of that kind of transit world in the 1980s and early 1990s, as I went to and from the United States as an Indian citizen with a U.S. student visa. Today, as a U.S. citizen of some means, I rarely have to enter that world.
In 2018, we still seem to be in a long nation-state-century, though perhaps we’re in a globalized-hyper-transit century. We won’t really know until the evolving science of borders catches up with contemporary phenomena, forms, and technologies.
So that’s it for the most obvious point to be made. Transit, the novel, was wholly suited to being made a contemporary film, which it has been.
But Transit is not just a novel that has contemporary resonance. It is a story that is both fascinatingly flat and intensely dynamic. It is as if Seghers cut a slice of a whorled, recurrent world – that she calls an “ancient, yet ever new … … present” – and conjures for us all the details – people, forms, places, ships, days, victuals – as they move, connect, break down, reconnect, slip off, and are replaced.
The story is narrated by a young man, in my view with the voice of a mature woman (plausibly a mature man, but implausibly a young man). In that period, a woman could not easily have wandered, gazed, and desired, so the narrator is a young man who is a curiously passive and blank character. His main foil, a young woman, another blank character, is hyper-active and always running after. Third in the key triangle of the novel is the explicitly blank character – for all practical purposes a fantasy – of a dead man, a writer, whom the narrator pretends to be and whom the young woman seeks.
The story of these three blank characters becomes the web that holds the world of transit in Marseilles at the beginning of World War II. Strung on this web – moving along, sometimes jumping off or jumping back on – are small characters, socially and otherwise varied, who are perfectly alive. Encircling the web are small, and larger, and overlapping, environments – cafés, waterfronts, stairs, rooms with a wall on this side and a wall on that side, a view of the sea beyond “where the road took a turn and the wind was the strongest” – which add up to what Marseilles was at that time, but also, as peopled by the various small characters, to the state of transit as the roiling object of the story.
Anna Seghers draws us in with the seductive narrative threads of quest, adventure, impossible love; in a curious inversion of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth, Marie runs after death and finally meets it. At the end, these narrative threads remain thin – almost transparent, almost air – but sustain a busy world of “present,” with all its waiting, living, and small moments of kindness and loving amidst known meanness, desperation, and death.
The basic triangle, the detailed representation of place, and the reliance on small, recurrent characters are not unusual.** What is striking about Seghers’ novel is the deftness with which she uses a somnambulistic, Heinrich Böll’s word, narrator to tell a compelling and dynamic story about a slice of time.
* It was first published in English and Spanish translations in 1944 when Seghers was in Mexico, and appeared in German in 1948 when Seghers was settled back in East Germany. Seghers’ choice to live in East Germany was controversial. The permanent return of the authorial voice of this novel to East Germany does intrigue me, but maybe only because I have some deceptive clarity of hindsight and distance.
** Reliance in long fiction on a wide variety of small, recurrent characters seems to belong more to places and times where lives are crowded and not as socially segregated as they seem to be for the dominant literary writing classes of the United States.
Two weeks ago, a companion called Leah Goodwin taught me and others a mysterious healing process. Mysterious to me, that is, probably not mysterious to its practitioners, whether in Hawaii, its original home, or elsewhere. According to Leah’s teaching, a therapist heard that a healer cured a group of unhappy people, with bewildered minds, without using drugs or psychotherapy. The process has a name that sounds silly to me – ho’oponopono. The therapist, Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len, tried it out, found it worked, and passed it on, as Leah did.
When Leah talked us through the process, I found myself sandwiched between tenderness and embarrassment. Used correctly, it calls for complete and ridiculous openness. Nobody could, or should, be open like that, not even a child, I thought. But when Leah taught this, I was with a group of people I’ve grown to love and trust. I stood in the shadow of friends who knew I was a fool and somehow found me wise. With them I could be that open, that ridiculous.
Ho’oponopono involves the incantation, with conscious and deep intention, of four sentences to oneself, or to another, preferably both (and, if both, that means all).
The sentences, Leah told us, could be in any order. She has a preferred order, but any order is fine, so long as all four sentences are understood, spoken, and intended.
These sentences sounded moving and profound, even divine, among these friends I trusted and who learned this process with me. Imagined beyond this group, they seemed frightening. They risked giving away too much, I could lose myself. If they were not matched, I could be reduced to a sentimental puddle – abject, without definition – and forever depleted.
So what, already, is this incantation?! What are these sentences?
I love you.
As I quickly typed these sentences, then hurry my eyes away from them to these words here, I think, gosh, if Kavanaugh said these. Of course, I don’t want him to, because that would make him pretty amazing – what were those words I used? moving and profound, even divine – though conservative. His saying these sentences would challenge us on the political left to take “compassionate conservatism” seriously, to consider saying these sentences to conservatives. But, ha, ha, he is far from saying it and, from where I sit, conservatism still looks rather un-compassionate. In case you (meaning I) need reminding, I still don’t like him and I still want to work for change in the 2018 mid-terms.
Rationally, truly, ho’oponopono has its limits. Dragging the process beyond these limits can be dangerous. In some ways, best to forget all about it.
But I shan’t, because ho’oponopono is not about reducing myself and you and susceptible varieties of bleeding hearts to loving blobs without definition, difference, and conflict. Ho’oponopono is not about side-stepping definition, difference, and conflict. Ho'oponopono is being unafraid to love even where there is definition, difference, and conflict. It is trusting that I will not lose myself if I say I am sorry. It is trusting that gratitude/love/apology/forgiveness and accountability can co-exist. Indeed, gratitude/love/apology/forgiveness offered with the (embarrassingly!!!) open spirit of ho’oponopono, is a true invitation to accountability, to own all of yourself.
Where ho’oponopono is most needed is where it is hardest. I can’t yet use it in my hardest places. Better to laugh. Better to scorn Kavanaugh.
Best (more sneaky, more virtuous) to ruminate: if I think Kavanaugh should say
I love you
… what would it mean for me to say to Kavanaugh
I love you
And yet, today, with all the swirling ill-will that continues to surround and emanate from the Kavanaugh nomination, even this virtuous self-examination, this sneaky hypothetical, is walled up and dull.
“From the badlands of language”: unfinished projects, wild life, and the joy of loving (a haphazard piece)
Months ago, a friend was stricken by the finitude of life and fear of regrets. We talked about this urgent – galvanizing rather than paralyzing – fear of life ending.
I couldn’t empathize because I have not feared death in a long time, if ever. I have feared disability, which could come with age but also unbidden from accident or disease; and, in particular, I have feared, immodestly, the dulling of my fine mind, but fear of death? No. We quickly and lightly attributed the difference to my Hindu, rather than Judeo-Christian, upbringing.
I have often said that I don’t have to do everything in this life. This does not mean that I believe that I will live another life, just that more lives than this life of mine will be led. So rather than the end or regrets at the end being important, it is – most tritely – living right now, “this is what I want to do, this is who I am,” that has been important to me.
This is a frame that has served me well, as I have genuinely enjoyed a little patch in a concrete path that looks like a woman dragging a sack behind her, and, less whimsically, was consumed, with awe, by a storm of jellyfish, thousands if not millions streaming past me, a few stinging my face. These are sensory joys.
In each case, it was not just an image, or a sting, but, with the concrete it was the feel of the light, the humming of a high-voltage wire above, and in the water, again, it was the light, or lack thereof, the awareness of gristle – Silky Shark bait, in the water amidst the swarming points of light – that I could not smell. But the gentle joys of the moment are not only sensory. Words can snare me, not just their rhythm, though, admittedly, it’s their rhythm that typically lures me first. Ideas can make my eyes widen, my fingertips feel alive.
In this way, reading The Paris Review’s interview with Luisa Valenzuela, whom I met in Tepoztlan in January, and chose to adulate though I didn’t really know her work, or her, led to a gentle moment with “the badlands of language,” from whence, according to Luisa, women come. Reading that phrase, I wanted to own it, not possessively, but gently, like the jellyfish stings and flawed concrete. I, a writer, come from the badlands of language. What does that even mean, as one of my daughters would ask. It has something to do with anger, I think, something to do with the paradoxical freedom of someone who struggles, who fundamentally is not and can never be free. We cannot just be the flower that offers its beauty and perfume freely, indeed the flower does not do that either, but that is a tangent I will leave aside in this piece.
Learning to gently enjoy the beauty of the moment is truly a source of peace and wonder, that – as I let the beauty of this moment, of writing this piece with morning light falling on pictures of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ray Charles; falling also on a postcard of one of Do Ho Suh “houses;” and, above all of these, falling on my collage of Thomas Hirschhorn’s ruins in Zurich – relaxes my body. I rub my cheeks. The beauty rubs on to me. This is a benediction.
But my life, coming from the badlands of language, in many ways quite literally, is not only benediction. Realizing this is not gentle joy. Indeed, it returns me to wildness, to wilderness. The Silkies never came, the gristle got caught in my hair. As I write this, the morning light is lovely, but cortisol, fear, and desire are in my fingers as well. Cortisol, fear, and desire are not gentle; they come from struggle. Struggle is wild. The flowers are not free. I have already written from that wildness (read my first novel!). How do I live with it? How do I hold it as preciously as the gentle joys of each moment? It calls for risk in living. Does risk in living mean risking loving (as my first novel explores)? When the end comes, there is no happy ending. There is just the limited end. Everything else goes on. Struggles and projects remain unfinished. I, with a happy Pollyanna-ish mind, want to end this piece with a call for, a touching of, a blowing out of the “joy of loving.” That phrase wrote itself into the title and I am loth to throw it out. But the joy of loving is what it is. You can only have it if you have it. And otherwise, or rather in any case, you struggle.
Note on jellyfish photo: Our guide and underwater photographer did not photograph the swarm. These jellyfish, also lovely, also stinging, also amid the flesh and bone of the shark bait, came before the swarm.
Epilogue: I’m going to dive again.