Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Ghosts Inside, Outside, All Around: Musings Prompted by a Robert Montgomery Artwork





People die and they disappear, and all we can say about that are philosophical banalities, religious platitudes, and where is science when we really need it? 
What does science have to say about the soul? 
Because if philosophy is the religion of eloquent doubt, and religion the philosophy of blind certainty, science has neither eloquence nor certainty when it comes to the (existence or not of the) afterlife. In the face of anything that it cannot isolate on a vitrine and scrutinize and classify under a microscope, science is mute. 

And so, as always, it is art that gives us not answers, but some kind of solace, a modicum of consolation, a sweet and sour caress in the face of The Nothingness…

Thus Robert Montgomery and his poetic "text art". I admire Barbara Kruger and her political stance disguised as advertising (making artistic derision of the "if you can't beat them, join them" axiom), but they leave me cold. They engage my intellect, yes, but in a way they are just preaching to the already converted part of me. Robert Montgomery's art, which I only recently discovered (thanks to Instagram—once in a while even I, a technophobe, must bow down to the enrichment that certain aspects of technology have brought to my life), speaks to more than just my intellect: it speaks to my heart, my soul, my creative and ever-changing mind. 

Lines of poetry become something at once more ephemeral and more permanent when they are etched into a neon sign, sculpted onto the side of a building, set on fire—when they exist three-dimensionally in space, rather than dwell, hidden, on the white surface of a book page.
They take on life.

This sign really hit me when I first saw a picture of it (on Instagram): immediately, though, I took it to be not just about tthe people you love who died, but rather about all the people you love(d) who are not present in the present.
Not only the "dear departed", but all the lost loves and lost friends, the people who let go of your hand and let you walk away, the people you left behind when you walked away.

But: is it right to keep them alive as ghosts? Is it what the dear departed would want, or would they rather be forgotten, left alone to play in whatever cosmic dimension they may be frolicking in forever (or not)? 
And what does it mean to have these ectoplasmic breaths of life-not-life inside of us all the time?

I am not here interested in the "new age" platitudes (this half-baked new religion for the new unthinking masses—a hodge-podge of warmed up leftovers from the time of the hippies and from some real Eastern religious and spiritual traditions), such as "let go of the past in order to live the present", "don't live in the past or the future, live in the present", etcetera. 
I also have my own gripes against these Western practitioners of "new age" philosophies: it is my personal experience that the people who utter such platitudes are those whose life has always gone well and who have everything, material or otherwise, they may ever desire or aspire to in the present—I've never heard a truly unhappy, poor, deprived, depressed person utter such "Zen" persuasions. But here these self-appointed anointed ones would say "But that's why you are depressed, because you can't let go of things, accept emptiness as the only reality, blah blah blah"… Thus precipitating the discussion (if one can even have a discussion with such self-possessed people) into that dangerous territory of "the chicken or the egg", where nothing ever can be resolved. 

It would be pointless to discuss this here. We are what we are, and we have what we have, and we can let go only of what we feel we can let go of.

And besides: there is something deeply unnatural about these platitudes—for what human being does not dwell in the past while also simultaneously dreaming about the future? 
Isn't it just human nature not to live in the present, not to be contented with it, but to constantly SEARCH—for something new, for something different, for something else? Where would we be as humans if we didn't have this pulsion? 

Well, yes, arguably we may in some ways be better off, and I am certainly not a blind advocate of either science nor progress, in the name of which so many crimes against humanity and the earth have been committed. But: we would also have no artists, because it is an artist's nature to be curious, exploring, inquisitive, restless, not contented with what IS, but always searching for deeper, different, other meanings, other notions other senses and other visions beyond and behind and underneath the accepted meanings, the received notions, the common senses and the merely physical visions.

"I see other things" has been my motto for a long time now, but I cannot claim exclusive privileges to it, it is any artist's motto. 

And so this light installation by Montgomery made me think of the ghosts inside me and the ghosts inside other people and how we deal (or not) with them: the dear departed, and the not  dead but lost loved ones, but also the not-dear-at-all disappeared ones, the ones who abandoned and betrayed and hurt us. Because, sadly, sometimes those ghosts are more haunting than the ghosts of people who loved us, they still sing their wicked song, howl their deceitful cries, and we are still under their dark spells.


Whatever the weight of those ghosts on my soul, on the soul of all of us, this piece made me think, made me want to write a little something—just a few platitudes of my own really, nothing that goes any deeper than the surface of the immense and inexplicable lakes that are Death and Loss—and this too is the power of art: not just to to move us to think and understand and explore, not just to move us, but also to inspire those of us who are artists.
It has been many years since I last updated this blog... and probably no one will even read this, now, but I'm writing more for myself than anything else.

In the meantime... I bought a house and moved to Mérida, Mexico, and after four years found myself trapped by a house I had loved so much (and continue to love) but has been a money vampire and is now proving very hard to sell, and a life that had been but a dream.
Because, at my tender age, I'm still a dreamer after all...

So these are some of my most recent musings of disparate subjects. Perhaps rantings, a little bit, but I like to think that despite that aspect they have some quality to them in the use of language and the thoughts that have gone into them.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Catching Breath

In the last month of the last year, ill health forced me to take a long absence from my writing projects—except for journal writing, the only kind that didn't require too much in the way of editing or paying attention.


For three entire weeks in December, I was breathless; not the emotional-intellectual kind like in Godard's namesake film, but the literal, asthmatic kind.


One of my favorite memoirists, Louise DeSalvo, wrote a book called "Breathless", a wonderful diary-cum-intellectual analysis of what it means to have asthma (and what it meant to other writers who suffered from the disease, such as Proust, Bishop, Barnes). 
I cannot add much to her thorough insights, but I will state the obvious anyway: breathing is a gift we take too much for granted. Like the many everyday, common place things we fail to see, it is so banal yet so profound.

We only pay attention to breath if we are seriously into yoga, or meditation, and maybe sports (though I would argue that too many athletes perhaps misuse and abuse their lung capacity). But most of us are not serious students, observers, practitioners of breath. We just breathe as we go about our life: carelessly, unthinkingly, often in either too shallow or too labored a way, but we don't really pay attention to breath. As part of our Western culture collective delusion about the reality of death, we just think it's always going to be there.


And then one day you find yourself out of breath. The reality of it is overwhelming. No matter what fine tricks you try, the tricks you learned from your scant and scattered forays into the practice of yoga or meditation, you simply cannot push more air into your lungs—or out of them for that matter. The airways are constricted, the lungs just refuse to open up. The phrase "take a deep breath" is now only a metaphor, not something that can be taken literally anymore.

The lack of sufficient oxygen in your body translates into a lack of energy. You are utterly fatigued by the simplest everyday chores: getting in and out of bed, pulling on your clothes, fetching a glass of water; doing laundry, emptying the dishwasher, cleaning the cats' litter box become grand enterprises totally out of your reach. Taking a shower is an almost impossible goal, and you go days without washing yourself. You can barely eat or drink water. You can do nothing without panting, without having to double over a counter trying to catch your breath back. You, usually so independent, need your husband's hand to get the morning cereal or a bowl out of the cupboard, and that makes you feel tired, irritable, and ever so helpless—helpless like a very young child that cannot do anything by itself.
Any action that before this condition would have been performed without a second thought, any insignificant movement now requires slow motion, concentration, unbearable effort. And more doubling over a counter to catch breath, for entire minutes that seem to last forever. 
Precious minutes, hours, days of your life are wasted in the constant effort to recover your breath—a shallow, labored breath that will allow you to survive. Your nights are spent hovering between shorts bouts of restless sleep and longer bouts of insomnia, while you toss turn in the bed trying to figure out which position can allow to maximize that tiny amount of air you can summon in and out of your body.
The rasp, sibilant noise of wheezing has become the soundtrack to your days.


Breath is energy: you now understand—no longer just philosophically or intellectually, but factually and literally—why in Eastern cultures the word for energy would also be equated with breath: Chinese Qi, Japanese Ki, Sanskrit Prana.


Three entire weeks of this ordeal, while I try all the natural remedies that have so far worked so well, in my nearly twenty years of having been diagnosed. And on day five of suffering I try the inhaler that has previously always helped to restore my breath during violent but infrequent asthma attacks. And finally I have to surrender, for the first time ever, to the poison of corticosteroids.


And the day before Christmas, I am able to breathe again. I've hated Christmas all my life, but this is probably my best Christmas ever: I am able to go out of the house, take a long walk, catch the bus, shop for food and a present for my husband—all without wheezing and panting and having to stop every few minutes in the street. 
Back home, I am also able to vacuum, do laundry, cuddle the cats, and to cook again. I make a traditional Christmas Eve dinner of seafood: penne with shrimp marinated in wine and saffron and then cooked with cherry tomatoes, Portuguese-style salt cod with potatoes and black olives.


And now that I've been able to breathe for days and days without giving it so much as a fleeting thought, I'm in danger of taking this for granted once again. Of forgetting to be grateful for the gift of breath, of energy, of vital force, of creative energy.
There was a lesson in all this suffering, and I must not relinquish it, I must keep it always present within me.


Yes, my new year's resolution is a very simple one: do not forget to breathe.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Have We Lost the Capacity to Observe?

This (now past) summer I was going to go to a Vipassana retreat. 
I was all booked up for August, but then my darling cat Billie got cancer and I didn't know how much time she had left, but I knew for sure I wasn't going away even for a day while she was still around. 
It was probably for the best as I'm not sure I would have been able to go through the experience of the retreat without freaking out: for a week, there would have been no privacy (you'd share a room and bathroom with another woman), no conversation (absolute silence except when asking a question of your teacher), hours and hours of meditation a day, and total contemplation even when not meditating: books and writing (and, needless to say, any other more technological medium) were forbidden.
I think this latter clause would have been the one to really freak me out: I can tolerate sharing a room for a week though it would not make me happy; I could tolerate the loneliness of silence because a lot of the time I spend many of my days like that; but no reading and no writing? I am not sure.


And then I think of all the people I see in the streets, at the supermarket, on the bus; people who shop and talk on the phone and text at the same time, people who sit on the bus thumbing their iPhone while listening to their iPod while maybe reading on their iPad or Kindle, people who nearly get killed crossing the street or driving because they are on text or cellphone, people who can barely pay attention while having a conversation with someone because they are also "talking" to (many a) someone else via Facebook...

What would all these people do at a Vipassana retreat? Die, go berserk, or maybe, finally, let go and allow the silence and the contemplation to penetrate into the innermost folds of their being?


I have often been a critic of these contemporary mores of ours, the excessive reliance on technology or "social media": the turning what should be a face-to-face into a Facebook conversation; the replacing of a letter with a text message, of a phone call with an email—and the misplaced idea that these media all equal each other, are all one and the same.
Not true.

But that is not what I want to write about, not again. I want to reflect on the very fact that reflection, observation, and contemplation,  may be lost or in-danger-of-extinction art forms, ways of being.


This is not news or an original though by any means—it just came to me more urgently and deeply a few days ago as I was shortcut-walking through the campus of Reed College here in Portland, to get somewhere for a job training. 
I walked across a bridge that spanned a beautiful pond, the trees all around turning into their Autumn color palette, the reflections in the pond water in many shades of green, gray-blue, azure. 
As the photographer that I once was, I mused on how difficult it would be for me to capture those hues, those reflections, and especially the peaceful, slightly eerie feel and look of the pond on film; I remembered the technical steps I may have to take in order to approximate on film, and then on photographic paper, what my eyes were seeing so quickly and easily.
 And then I thought, but today a photographer would not even need to actually see this, they would just make it up on the computer, in Photoshop. Or they would digitally combine several images into one, whereas I once had to spend hours in the darkroom to make a double exposure under the enlarger. 
And I thought how much has been lost because of this. 
It is not just that I bemoan (I do!) the replacing of film with video, of analog with digital. (And, on this subject, take a look at the British artist Tacita Dean's elegy for 16mm film. She has vowed never to use digital in her art, but what will she make films with in the future?)


My musings on Reed College's footbridge were more about a deeper sense of loss: the loss of our capacity, as a Western culture at large, and as humans in general perhaps, to observe, to contemplate, without distraction, without hurry, and with our utmost attention and focus.
Everywhere I look, everybody (including me, you could say, even now that I'm writing this, because I'm also half-listening to the Classical radio station) is "multi-tasking"; no one is deeply, intently, concentrating on one thing, and one thing alone.


Why?


Are we afraid of what we would discover about ourselves if we were to train our gaze and mind on one thing and one thing alone for a prolonged period of time, if we were to let go of all the distractions around us? Or are we afraid of what we would discover in the thing observed?
Are we afraid to find only emptiness at the bottom of it, or are we afraid to find too much, too many murky depths there instead?


Why can we never just sit and sit still and do nothing?


Why the hurry, why the constant chattering, the constant noise, the constant multiple engagements of our mind? 
Do we need to demonstrate to ourselves that we can, that we are better than animals who apparently can only focus on one task at a time? Has it really come to this?


I think about those photography students today who may never have to develop a roll of film, may never have to mix chemicals, may never have to spend many patient hours cooped up in a darkroom like some art vampires, to then emerge with the gift of a beautiful print... 
Most of all, they'll never even have to hunt for that Cartier-Bressonian "decisive moment", or that Ansel Adams-like obsession with the right light, the right composition in the viewfinder. They'll never stand in front of that pond for minutes, contemplating the eerie reflections, pondering the vermillion, ochre and russet in the tree leaves, and then take out their camera and aim for a picture. 
All this would require too much of their attention, too much of their introspection, perhaps. 
It would require them to switch off their cellphones, to disregard the urgent beep of a text or Facebook message, and surrender to the two worlds at hand: the one inside them, the one immediately in front of their eyes. 


I'm happy that writers still have to go deep inside themselves to find the world they aim to convey; they still need those capacities of observation and introspection and they still need the solitude (at least inner—though I can never understand those who can write in a coffee shop, I need my own house and silence all around me, preferably at night) to be able to write.


But I worry that all of us as humans are losing the capacity to observe and contemplate; and that, as artists in any medium, we are also at risk of losing our imagination.
Imagination is born partly of observation and contemplation, and also of limitations. As a photographer, I knew that not all images were possible to me as they are in painting, so I endeavored to recreate those that came into my mind within the confines of my chosen medium. In that process, new images and ideas were born.
Limitations are as nourishing to the imaginative mind as possibilities are, and I do not believe that the endless possibilities offered by Photoshop result in better, more imaginative, artistic creations.


I stood on that bridge for minutes, contemplating the eerie pond, the lovely hues in the trees and the water, while streams of students rushed to classes behind me, not one of them stopping even for one moment, not one of them even shooting a glance at the pond, because they (thought they had) seen it a million times before. But each time it was a different pond, with a different light. But what did it matter to them? They didn't need to observe those changes in light, they could just sit in front of a Mac in the art lab and create their own shade of light in a digital image. Yes, that is creative too, I am absolutely not discounting that.

But can we see how much we lose when we do not watch?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Publication

A brief post to announce my first (for a while) publication, an excerpt from my memoir in progress in the October issue of Hippocampus Magazine.


Gentle readers, I hope you will read it and share it and leave me a comment if you please...

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Bee, Today...

My blog lately came to a halt, first because of the aftermath of my beloved cat Billie's death (at the end of July); and then because of the weather. It's been so hot here (and long overdue!) that I've been wanting to do nothing other than sitting in my garden, in the shade, and admire the progressive blooming of my vegetables. Red and orange tomatoes, green and purple basil, yellow round cucumbers, white eggplants, deep violet chili peppers, and a multitude of fuchsias in all shades of pink and mauve are the colors in my otherwise very, very green garden.
Today, as I sat under the carport that has been set aside as our seating and BBQ area, I saw a bee alight on the pink and lilac flowers of a blouse that was hanging on my washing line.


So, a bee's memory can be fooled by bright colors that mimic real flowers; and our memory can also trick us with a sudden spark of color, a sudden burst of sound, a sudden issue of scent that bring us back to another place, another time.


In these days of summer heat, when scents are particularly salient in the air, and I've been living off the bounty of tomatoes and basil off my garden (all manners of pasta sauces hot and cold, cooked and raw; gazpacho; pesto galore) I've experienced food as memory in deep and powerful ways.


Gentle readers, you all know, of course, the oft-quoted proustian passage about the madeleine, which recounts the tricks that memory can play on our mind: one morsel of a taste long lost, and we are suddenly precipitated back into the past, a past we'd believed gone forever.


Indeed, since leaving Italy in 1984 I have been experiencing the almost obsessive recall of three distinct smells, that for me have always represented the quintessence of Naples (yes, I know, the cynics out there will want to add the smell of burning garbage to my proustian list, but I must assure you that what you read in the news is never the complete story).


Firstly, there is the smell of basil: the particular kind that here is in fact called Napoletano, and has tough, large, crinkly leaves of an emerald shade. This variety is not the most suitable for pesto (though it will do), being rather fibrous and a touch bitter if eaten raw.
But it is heavenly if a few shreds (ie. juliennes for all you culinary purists) are tossed into a caprese salad (if possible, made with the best mozzarella di bufala, and the ripest summer tomatoes); and it is wonderful to add to a tomato sauce because its big leaves do not disintegrate and retain some flavor even with the long cooking.
In Italy, you could buy this basil in large bunches at the greengrocer's, but if all you needed it for was your sauce or salad, they'd give it to you for free, together with some parsley and a celery stalk; these are called gli odori, the scents, and most greengrocers will just slip them into your bag of fruit and vegetables without you needing to ask.


And then, there is my second proustian smell: coffee.


Oh, sure, there's plenty of coffee alright in the Northwest (too much, I think, used as an addictive pick-me-up against the depression derived from a constantly grey sky—but that's another story); but that is most definitely not the coffee of my heritage.
In Italy, there are no "varieties" of coffee, no fancily named concoctions of syrups and foam and milk and chocolate, in different shapes of cups; there is only espresso, and espresso doesn't come in "one shot or two?" (a question that here always makes me chuckle internally), you order it simply as un caffé, a coffee, because it's the only coffee there is (yes, there is also cappuccino, but no one in Italy would drink it in the middle of the afternoon as tourists do, only in the morning for breakfast with a cornetto—a particular type of Italian croissant—or a brioche to go with it).


The smell of coffee, or espresso, has accompanied me all my life in Italy: if Naples is the Italian capital of pizza, it is also the capital of espresso. You can use Naples as a departure point on the scale of espresso strength and move upward along the boot, with the strength of coffee decreasing as you go. Espresso in Milan resembles more the kind of coffee you get in Paris (also simply called coffee, not espresso), with the unlikely yet nice twist of a lemon rind draped along the rim of the cup like the scarves that Parisian women do so well.
But, in Naples, coffee is dark, black with a brownish tinge, strong, very strong: as we say in Italy, ristretto (literally, tightened, or short, to indicate a small amount of coffee). It is served very hot, in a very hot cup (at the bar—which in Italy is not a drinking hole but a place where you drink your coffee or other drinks standing up at the counter—they keep the coffee cups immersed in boiling hot water).
And the smell, the smell is everywhere, the sharp and slightly acidic and nose-tingling smell of coffee wafting out of every window in every apartment block in the city, at most hours of the day (and, sometimes, night).
And I miss that smell, and when I make myself a coffee at home, it brings my city back to me—my crazy city with its over-the-top behavior, its over-ripe smells, its all-around sensory overload...


And then, there is the smell of jasmine; a jasmine that may not rival its Indian, or Persian varieties, but it is certainly much more fragrant than anything I've ever smelled in non-Mediterranean countries. In the summer nights, when the intense heat of the day slowly dissipates but lingers on just enough that you can sit bare-armed on a terrace under a jasmine/entwined pergola and converse with your friends into the wee hours while sipping some cold white wine, the smell of jasmine emanating from above your head can be deeply intoxicating.


Maybe I'm bitter because my own memoir might never get published, and it will certainly never sell for a six-figure sum, but I just don't get the appeal of books like "Eat Pray Love". She didn't have to go to three different countries for these activities, she could have found them all in Italy. And the foods to accompany each one of them.


Yes, basil for eating, coffee for praying, and the jasmine most definitely for loving.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Can You Write It While You Live It?

Can you write death while you're living it, however vicariously?


The answer is no, not so much; because if you try to write it, it will distract you from living it. And if you write it while you're living it, afterwards you'll have perhaps more exact details put down on paper, but less of the mysterious and twisted workings of memory.

For over a month I've been living with the imminent death of a cat so dear to me that should I ever hear anybody utter any of those off-handed remarks about this being "just" an animal I'd be ready to pounce and kill. But I know that there will be many who think it, as there will be those who shake their heads and comment "Well, this is just because she doesn't have any real children".
People who think that way for me are superficial, crude, are rendering banal the ineffable thing that is grief. Because, it doesn't matter who—or indeed what—is dying; grief is not commensurate with the nature of the person, creature or thing lost, mourned for, but rather with the weight of our attachment to, and bond with, that person, creature, thing.
Grief can only be measured by the weight of its hold on us; the depths it can reach sinking into our skin and bones; the size of the festering wound it leaves behind.


My beloved cat Billie, who I watched come to life, come out of her mother's belly on an early morning of November 4th 1991, in London, England, will die tomorrow of a fatal injection, after for nearly two months we tried all we could to abate the horrible cancer that suddenly attacked her jawbone. She will die just a few months short of her twentieth birthday.


This is all I can bring myself to write for now, but I intend to write about her afterwards, of her eventful life—she has been quite the jet-setter, moving with me from England to America to Canada and then to America again—because, if we can write memoirs of people, who says we shouldn't write memoirs of animals too?