I’ve seen her. I can’t unsee her. She’s so smart I’m pretty sure she saw me. But the nature of our unspoken agreement now is that we don’t know each other, have never met, will never meet.
I think the last thing I said to her was “I find you domineering and competitive and belittling, and you don’t seem to want to do anything about it,” (I had suggested therapy.) That last time, she had come to my back door completely coiffed and in new nail polish. I felt like she wanted me to look at her, but really I don’t know what she wanted, was deeply unsettled in fact. That last should absolutely not be a dependent phrase. I was deeply (let me stress) deeply unsettled by what I perceived she wanted, a thing I had kept as vague as possible and therefore menacing, a fog machine I’d invented just for when she was around, conducive to phobia, I suppose.
Initially, I think that because she appeared to want to be a middle-aged, middle class, bourgeois white female, I was led into thinking we were kin. I was not threatened at first. The perceived wish on her part to be that thing kept her within the realm of the knowable and therefore the controllable. Looking at her and listening to her state her wishes, I thought I knew/felt what she wanted and could abide or refuse. One or the other.
Over the course of time, with our participation in old-people’s sports games like Pickleball and checkers, coupled with the truth I had known from the beginning which was that she was a man, I was led to nerve-wracking doubts, shoals of fear. She was very competitive, the riding of bikes, for example, was always a contest and not a tour. She completely took over the art project I had enlisted her help with which involved the engineering then building of a simple object. I was left with her drawings and no ideas of my own.
She cried (crocodile) tears once at a concert we went to, blubbering about the beauty of the violinist’s arms saying her long-ago wife had arms like that and “Oh, what a loss!” In my mind, I went, “What?!, the defining relationship of your life and the wrenching break-up as you’ve described it subsequently comes down to the loss of specific toned muscles on a skeleton?” I am not understanding, I say to myself and am grossed out. I can have neither control nor abiding here. I do not know what the desires are. I cannot, will not, be the target. Too bizarre for my one and only long-held identity.
This is a social dilemma of a modern kind. I can’t unsee her. But I can scooch past, without a salutation, find a desk, and write this tiny bewildered piece. (more…)
After my parents divorced, my two younger sisters and I went to live with our grandparents for awhile. And I took refuge, I believe I can use that word, as a five year old in the basement of Irene Murphy’s house. The time would have been mid-Fifties, and the place was where she kept her boxes of Filipino imports. She’d gone into business for herself because she had to, I think, once her husband, posted there as a diplomat, divorced her. She lived with her sister down the street from my grandparents, and the two of them occupied the center of a rather rowdy social circle. She traded in wholesale slippers, shirts, wicker, teak salad bowls, and those grass placemats. All the things you know as mid-century modern which turn up at the Salvation Army now, I saw them first.
The memory of the place still gives me dreams of exotic bazaars and endless looping cobbled streets that turn into alley ways and then take a turn onto new shop windows with more shelves of draping jewels and feathers and scarves and fabric and scent and around the corner and down the stairs is a completely new thing. The floors of Irene’s bohemian house were literally cobbled, that is laid with half bricks, treated and shellacked, different colors and not at all level. White fur rugs were strewn about. White-washed walls held bold abstract expressionist portraits that I could peek at quickly because they were on the first floor which was the grown ups’ place. We kids got the basement and it was a heaven that enlivened every lascivious girly cell. Sequins, silk, wicker, iridescence, low ceilings, stacks of boxes in dim light, receded back into an infinity of stuff. The light fixture was tucked under a shelf so that the fluorescent light haloed around the work table, ledgers, and labels, barely spilling out into the rest of the rooms.
Irene would give the three of us girls a pair of sandals each every now and then. But on the frequent occasions that my socialite grandparents went for cocktails, we headed to the basement just to look. This was the refuge part. It seemed built precisely for kids, precisely to fascinate and stimulate the lonely, traumatized, and highly sensitive. Can’t put my finger on what it was exactly. I am sure in the bright light of day, the things were cheap and flimsy, but then that was partly the point. Deep in that scented hide-away, everything seemed exotic having come from the furthest reaches of the world. I felt I knew from personal experience that I’d seen the treasure trove from the Arabian Nights.
Inside my chaotic life, as siblings and so-called “parents”, appeared randomly and then disappeared, as boring school clothes were chosen for me, as boring classes were quietly endured, as people kept smiling without meaning it, as the food, the shoes, the conversation alternately threatened and bored, there was this place that was reliably Other. It was never something I could ask for or make happen. There was something about the remove and the darkness that made the mystery. The same shoes shown brighter at Irene’s. As soon as we got them home to Mom’s house in Oregon and walked the wet woods once, the little slippers made of grass and sequins fell apart.
But it was not so much the having of shiny slippers, as it was the place they came from, or rather, that first step into the place. The scent of dried grasses and sandalwood, the dim light, the low ceiling, a delicate darkness. The light down there made Irene a magician, a business woman and a conjurer. She could levitate these magic slippers from the Far East, as it was called then. There is no place now to me as far away as that, Mars maybe.The Magic Basement Storeroom Shop and Slipper Bazaar is an emblem, a stand-in, a talisman decidedly for something, for the existence of a Place Out There, a kachina that invokes the possible, for the mystery of stepping into deKooning’s studio, say, or a smokey bar where your lover waits, or moving on tip-toe through the Forest of Arden lit with fireflies, or the souk at Omdurman. A talisman for the power, not of invention inside my own head, but of appreciation, surprise, and gratitude for what is out there somewhere. Not that you would or could invent such a thing, but that you arrive as a devotee at the door, the bottom step, the tent flap.
For me the magic exists in dreams and only there, though the souk at Omdurman came closest in reality. The disappointment is too strong and too frequent for me to go out looking anymore. I concede it is there. I tell you it is. (more…)
Rattling pipes. Fridge on. Point one milligram psilocybin. The brain is flat. The pointy end is not pointed. No point. Surrounded by clay figures and not people. One cream colored lady climbs the green-blue block continuously, startled. She is just one of my favorites. Another is the couple in the corner I’ve placed on a malachite table because the green compliments the rusty red of baked stoneware. They are Vladimir and Estragon forever seated and arguing. One has a broken knee now bandaged with gauze, torn and tied with itself to hide/heal the break. He’s the one who is gesturing, pointing with a bony finger to the outlying interior of the dynamic between them. His companion regards quietly in the French sense of the word. Head turned toward him to listen completely. I wish I had such a thing. I don’t have it, so I made it out of clay. The better to look at it and regard it also completely forever until it breaks. Malachite came from forever. Now it sits in my living room holding up my wishes. If a sculpture lands on a table and no one is around to project their wishes on it, does the object mean anything? (more…)
Day after. Awake for 3 hours in the middle of the night, roaming the cosmos while remembering the details of an evening out completely over-stimulated. That the curve of a shoulder as I glance beyond behind you reveals the filip of an eyebrow. As the eye moves to the new painting second from the end, I hear the whirr of elevator, clink of wine glass amid room of 100 people, dimly aware of lights various, like my attention unfocused then focused.
So I went to the art opening. I attend so many I don’t capitalize them anymore. Been here in general so am more or less comfortable and know a few people. Talk with my friend Max about research mathematicians vs high school math teachers and the analogy begins to be meaningful that groups of men are like chimps, are chimps in fact. High school math teachers, he tells me, can’t stand to admit ignorance in front of a research mathematician and learn less as a consequence. Can’t stand to say “I don’t know.” Can’t stand to feel that feeling in the chimp chest that realigns the troop, sends him to the back.
Humans are primates. I know because I am here in this group and an acquaintance named Curtis has just arrived, suitably late. An art critic and flaneur, he apologized to me years ago for selling out and getting a teaching job. There’s an idea in his head of who he is. It comes from taverns of the ‘60s and salons of the 30’s by way of Paris and Bohemia. I remember having the same idea.
I love that Bohemia is a place, a country with sidewalks and taxes, and not a dream. Curtis got stuck in the Baudelaire version and now grooms his troop. If you are cool enough, he will talk to you. He’s on his third wife, I think, and she is 20 years younger, a tell-tale sign that the fellow is hunkered down in a delusion. How does this happen? That a human with vast mental reserves should stop growing and take to grooming. Stop in place and start spinning, patting the hierarchy he’s constructed based on his idea, up and down, all parts in their proper coolness, who’s shown lately where, who’s been written up, who’s just come back from NY and just sold for whopping sums. Information like nits, picked and flung, or passed around to confirm his mental edifice, his troop. (more…)
Come February, and at the far end of the TV room near the south-facing sliding glass door lives a lemon tree with two lemons on it. The fruit are enormous, as big as grapefruit or some sports ball, rugby maybe. One could paint them as they hang from the tree in this room, like angels dropping through winter. Lucien Freud, in his compulsion would make leaves, philodendron say, travel up the wall in his studio. It grew the same way he couldn’t stop painting. Oil paint and turpentine would outline the edges, then he’d fill in the growth rapidly. Paper and pen was always easier so I’ll write the lemon tree instead while that awful beatnick song from the 60’s does NOT play in the background. And reaching and grasping for light must be described and the slight shift in the silence of the room when a dead leaf falls. The fruit hangs morning and night. What color are lemons in the dark? The leaves are alert at 7:30am, transforming light to energy to roots to leaves, leaving oxygen. Could I reach and grasp for yellow? For metaphor? For canvas? I’ve done a deed, managed part of its perimeter. I’ve wanted to finish or somehow do justice to photosynthesis, the chemical phenomenon in the shape of the leaves and length of the branches. Both search for links, carbon to carbon to water, H2O to O2, and the photons that travel in waves. The chemistry determines the limit, is the determining factor. Not God. Not aesthetics. Not mind. Not paint. No wish, human or divine, only chemistry and the chemistry in air, implacable, indifferent, magical.
This goes also for the jasmine here beside me. (more…)