Real Talk With Gallileo

On keeping time with heartbeats and the bumpy, dusty moon.

Today, I’ll be having another one of those one-sided conversations with a dead person, as I love to do from time to time when I find occasion to think about them. What got me on this track was learning that on this day in 1609, Gallileo Gallilei demonstrated his first telescope to lawmakers in Venice. I was wondering: Why, of all people, was it them? Perhaps he needed a permit. I have not yet found the answer to this question, but I did find some more questions.

Gallileo, I’ve been wondering.

What must it have been like, to notice ––while studying medicine at your father’s insistence, after he discouraged you from your calling as a priest, after he discouraged your interest in mathematics (on the grounds that neither vocation paid as well as a physicist)––that the chandelier above you, swinging in the wind at variable arcs, seemed to keep time with your heartbeat, regardless of the size of the arc? To discover, in the experiment that followed, that pendulums of any length will keep time with one another and the human heart?

What is it like to know what happened to this discovery, how it led––a century later–– to the creation of the first timepiece, which over time meant that people kept time, which over centuries meant that people were kept by time, which over centuries meant that people no longer tended to look at the sky or the shadows of a sundial to know the hour; that people would often be so rushed by the march of expectations corresponding to the commodification of minutes, that they would no longer stop to look up?

Apologies for this digression. Of course, I am projecting here. I am somewhat envious of your freedom for study––of your freedom to stop and examine things, period. That and the way that not only did you never need to introduce yourself with an ID number, you didn’t even use a last name. 

Of course, you had money troubles of your own, especially with your brother, a composer, constantly accruing debt to support his love of music. You had studied the arts, too, against the wishes of your father, and you befriended the painter Cignoli, who painted a Madonna on the moon, which was a common-enough image until you noticed the pockmarks on the moon.

I can’t help but think that his friendship with you had a hand in the painter’s decision to resist the convention of a mythical orb. I can’t help but think that time spent with you helped him to appreciate the poetry of the possibility that the celestial body elevating her feet need not be a perfect sphere of dreamlike luminescence, that it might instead be a rock not unlike the rocks of this world, suggestive of a sort of comical lopsidedness, with cracks and crevices in which everyday filth and ordinariness may easily accumulate, along with lunar dust and cosmic pests and possibly even space mildew.

I am grateful that your work made it possible to make certain associations between our most sublime conceptions––say, heaven––and the stuff that was hanging around everywhere, either invisible or appearing to be in the way of the men with their lofty goals, who preferred not to debase themselves with considerations of the cracks in surfaces, the way that the wind would get through, and the cold, the way you had to keep mending and stopping them like you had to keep changing and feeding and holding the crying babies, ––

gathering and chopping and seasoning and boiling and stewing and roasting and cleaning; to feed the noble man a single meal, just before you got back to the babies and before you got back to do it again, how sometimes, even after all this, it was still possible, for the length of sixty to a hundred heartbeats at night, ––

just after the children were asleep, to sit in a chair, looking up, feeling an ineffable pull toward a wonder and mystery that felt both vast and made of the same mystery that you had noticed gathering herbs, wrapping the soft body of an infant, and in the longings that persisted no matter how long they seemed to go unanswered.

Thank you for insisting on this connection, even though it meant you were outcast from the basilicas you loved, from the rituals you had once thought to administer yourself, from the silence of the naves with their candles and incense, and the awe of an intimate mystery in the air.  

I’d love to say more, but my second alarm is going off now, and I’ve not yet been awake for an hour. Time to check the sleeping baby, time to check the food, iron the clothes, pack the things of the day, all the while watching the clock––which marches, I know now, by the rhythm you first noticed in the chandeliers swinging above you as you sat with the books you meant to study, the assignments you meant to get to, the financial responsibilities you meant to meet, the appointments you meant to keep, the wandering heart you meant to tame, and you could not keep your eyes from wandering up, to rest on what you had yet to understand, having the insight to notice that even this was made of something as utterly familiar as the drum in your own chest. 

Pigeon Spectrum

Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

You gotta come see this.

What?

These feathers. This artist makes these huge rainbow murals from the colors.

Oh, I love peacocks.

Who doesn’t, but this is about pigeons.

Flying rats!

No, but look close. Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

Where?

Sides of buildings, chimneys, warehouse walls, shipping containers. They started out more muted, but then it was the winter of sirens and another lockdown and everyone inside. That’s when they started getting really bright.

Huh, there’s a legend I heard once, about what the Cottonwood remembers about the pigeons.

Why people started calling them flying rats?

No, why they became the first birds eaten by another bird. It’s a Caddo story, I think.

Hawk get ‘em?

Owl. Legend has it that in the beginning, no bird killed another bird. All they ate was grass and leaves. Great Spirit didn’t like to see anything she made killed by another creature.

But the owl always hunted at night.

Not always. It used to see fine in the daytime. Matter of fact, that’s how it started. Owl laid eyes on a swan and fell hard in love. 

Always the swan. Great white ladybird. They’re mean, though.

So, owl goes every day to see the swan and then he proposes marriage. Swan’s like, “Come down here.” Now, usually owl knows better than to get near any water, but love makes you do crazy things. So, what do you think happens?

Wet feathers.

Yep, he falls in, can’t get out, and there’s a loon in the reeds cracking up, going, “Hah! Fool!” and Owl is humiliated, furious. Thing is, he can’t see the loon. What he sees instead are these two pigeons above him on a cottonwood branch. The pigeons are not paying the owl any mind. They’re lovers. One’s saying to the other, “Who do you love?” just as the raging owl below them is going, “What are you laughing at?” The other pigeon, addressing her love, says, “You, you.”

Uh-oh. I see where this is going.

Yep. Owl goes crazy and attacks her. Her feathers rain down, brush against Great Spirit’s cheek. Spirit wakes up, sees what’s happened, and punishes owl. And that’s why owl can only see at night now. 

Huh.

I know. 

Point being, you gotta see these feathers. 

Let’s go.

The artist is Adele Renault and I came across an article about her “Gutter Paradise” murals in My Modern Met. Here is a link to the article with images.

The story “The Cottonwood Remembers” can be found at When the Storm God Rides, by Florence Stratton, collected by Bessie M. Reid [1936], at sacred-texts.com

The Artist and the Curator

How does a curator leverage some knowledge of what will draw people and lead them to be surprised by what they were not looking for, which they may never have thought to seek out?

I had the great fortune of visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this weekend, and was profoundly moved by the experience. It had been a long time since I’ve visited an art museum, and the timing is perfect for many reasons. One of these is that I have been considering certain questions related to art: mainly, how “doing it” is often felt to be something separate from bringing people to it. And how the fusion of both roles is essential for the art to reach an audience. 

While visiting the museum, I am noticing the level of intricate thought and care that has gone into the design of the space where people come to see what is called “the work,” ––without which, the work could not be seen and appreciated except in small private groups. I think about what choices are made to lead people in, how curating an exhibit is an art in itself.

I notice what has been considered, from selection and arrangement of pieces, to how people are guided to move through a space.  The frames, what wall colors, behind which pieces, under what lighting?

LACMA by Elliot Harmon on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

American art critic Jerry Saltz said, “Don’t go to a museum with a destination. Museums are wormholes to other worlds. They are ecstasy machines. Follow your eyes to wherever they lead you…and the world should begin to change for you.”

It’s the curator’s job to present an artist’s work in a manner that allows such wormhole experiences to happen–– and, ideally, to encourage that they will.

My own experience teaches me that while some celebrated artists had the great fortune to work with people who recognized the art and matched it with an audience, then cultivated, curated, and nourished the conditions for its reception, most of us working creatives do not have someone like this working along with us. We tend to feel discomfort when it comes to curation. 

This is worth paying attention to. How do you find an audience and welcome them in? What pieces do you arrange in the opening room, what do you save for the inner room of the exhibit? How do you select and display pieces so that they work in dialogue with each other? When a summary is included with the label of a piece, how do you frame it so that connections are encouraged across time and space, to meet the viewer in this space, in this time, looking now?

How does a curator leverage some knowledge of what will draw people and lead them to be surprised by what they were not looking for, which they may never have thought to seek out?

How do you direct the movement in a space while allowing viewers to explore with a sense of freedom and choice?

These are the questions on my mind, and while I may not have much in the way of answers ––yet, at least I have moved beyond thinking of curation as something somehow separate from my work as a writer. Keeping these daily posts are part of this, I know. I’ll stay with these and continue developing other projects as I develop some curating muscles.  

Some things I do not tend to keep at the forefront of my creative practice, as I have previously thought about it: how I want people to find the work.  How much I want to meet them where they are and bring them to it. Or how much it matters to me that people might be reminded back to something they might have wondered about, to revisit what might have been thought lost. How much I want people to see themselves in my work, to be reminded back to their best and most life-giving parts and be moved to nourish and protect those parts in themselves and others. 

It occurs to me as I write this, that I have never articulated any of this before. So, here’s a start. Onward.

Monster Mash 1: It’s Nothing!

He’s big and shaggy, and he goes around shouting: Nothing! That’s nothing! or This is nothing! You’re nothing! This whole project, whatever it is, amounts to nothing!

In yesterday’s post, I described the habit of following and leaving breadcrumbs as a practice I do “If the familiar bogeyman shows up, growling that there’s Nothing to offer.” Later in the day, it occurred to me that I had possibly misrepresented the regularity of the appearance of this character, as a sort of roving Bigfoot figure, of whom I have occasional sightings, whom I nobly fight off whenever he arrives. 

In fact, there is nothing occasional about his appearance. In fact, I can’t remember a creative day without him. In truth, we live together. Always have and probably always will. 

It occurred to me that I should give him some more space. Monsters like when you give them some room. They like to be acknowledged, which is why they growl and lope about breaking things. Given that I’ve already tried everything I can think of to get him to leave, from battle to poison, to attempting to lure him away with some distraction, I’ve decided to make peace with him. I’d rather live with a peaceful monster than an angry one desperate for attention. Besides, he’s surprisingly endearing (in a so-funny-looking-he’s-cute sort of way), all shaggy and one-note, always bumping into things and repeating himself. 

“monster” by Karli Watson on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license.

“Nothing!” Is what he says, over and over. That’s his name, Nothing. It calls to mind a favorite childhood movie, The Neverending Story, in which a boy goes on a quest to save the known world from The Nothing that is devastating the land. That nothing was terrifying to me, mainly because it rang deeply true. As a child I sensed what I did not have words for at the time, but which was definitely present: a strong anti-life force at loose in the world. Steven Pressfield calls it The Resistance. I sometimes call it The Machine. It’s capacity to destroy comes from its ability to exist undetected. 

This is why I decided to name my monsters. The umbrella title (Resistance, Machine, Evil, etc.) is useful, but the thing to understand about these forces is how they have minions going about doing their bidding for them.  I want to name these, too. 

So, back to Nothing. He’s big and shaggy, and he goes around shouting: Nothing! That’s nothing! or This is nothing! You’re nothing! This whole project, whatever it is, amounts to nothing! 

As you can see, he’s a bit of a solipsist. Poor guy, he really can’t help himself. It’s all he knows.

Yes, I say to him, patting his matted fur. That’s right, this is Nothing. Would you like some milk? 

I like Nothing! he insists, but he will take some milk. I put some out and he’s busy with that for a while, slurping away before he bangs the bowl to the floor, just to punctuate his previous statement. Which was: Nothing!

I even make concessions. I mean, he’s not entirely wrong. I actually don’t have any ideas, most days. So, if asked, “What ideas do you have this morning?” my honest answer is either something like, “I think I’ll fry my eggs instead of boil them today” or “I’ve got Nothing.”

Nothing would like me to submit at this point. But I can acknowledge that while I have no actual ideas most of the time, I am not in need of any, either. I’m here to show up and listen, and the world, as far as I can tell, is full of plenty to offer. All I need to do is look, listen, and describe. 

And be patient. If I didn’t have patience going for me, Nothing would probably win every time. If the question of what to post today (or write later, or how to develop that story or solve the next problem) had to be answered before I began, I definitely wouldn’t be getting anything done. But, as it turns out, it doesn’t. Nothing is big and hairy, smelly and loud, and sometimes just eerily silent, brooding. 

But Something is abundant and vast, full of more than I can possibly take in at any given time.  So, I practice just being in it, dancing with it, and let Something take care of the rest. That’s all I can do. Perhaps those with endless ideas have other ways.  

Maybe some people don’t live with all these monsters around them all the time. I can’t imagine what that’s like, but I can say that I don’t mind looking at these funny-looking guys. It’s quite a menagerie, really.  

You take a monster like this Nothing and you talk to him, pet him and offer some milk, clean up his messes, and after a while you start to notice that actually, he’s more like Something, which would negate the whole supposed threat of his being. 

But I won’t tell him that. Nothing’s got his job, and I have mine.

What’s that? He wants to know.

Oh, it’s Nothing! 

Hmmmmph. He nods, very serious, spewing sulfurous smoke from his nostrils. Nothing!

And then I get back to it. 

Follow-up:  After hanging out with my guy Nothing today, something occurred to me. I think I will do a whole “Monster Mash” series of posts though maybe not necessarily back-to-back. I like the idea of returning to these characters. I think I can assemble quite a cast, over time. I picture something like The Muppets Take Manhattan, another favorite childhood movie.

Why Breadcrumbs?

The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
​Where you are. You must let it find you.

— David Wagoner, “Lost”

I am here to let it find me. To listen, with you. That is enough, or should be, but I am not always as strong as my intentions. So I carry breadcrumbs in my pocket, just in case. I look for more, just in case. I share, just in case. Because someone else is always looking, too.

Wake, make coffee. Open notebook. If the familiar bogeyman shows up,
growling that there’s “Nothing” to offer, call the monster out, and offer anyway. Try memory. Try looking. Try a walk. Try a photograph, a work of art. An old story. Try typing in today’s date. Notice what happened on this day. Notice how you can, if you want, see flickers of all of history in a given day. Blake’s eternity in an hour.

 “Ladder in the Woods” by Claudia Dea on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. 

Gather crumbs: historical events, feast days, holidays you didn’t know about. Who was born, who died. Who did both and then was listed here before you ever knew them. Follow the breadcrumbs they left for you. Trust that they are there. Make notes of what you find. Not forever, just for a few minutes: 5, 15, 30. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

If an historical figure is involved, you may converse with them. Arrive not
at an end, but some beginning. Or a natural pause. Share the conversation
not like a lecture but like dancing in an open field. No explanation needed.

Go about the rest of the day, noticing how you are changed in a small
but meaningful way, from that small dance in that open space, how doing
so, reminds you of something vital, something about this wild, single life
that the machine would train you to forget. Be grateful for the change.
Repeat. 

This is all. A simple act of faith, connection, communion. Essential in
the unknowingness of it because the point is to be reminded back
to the mystery.

We are here to build the spaces that let us live inside it. We are 
here to welcome others to come in. To say, Here. Look. This
is where we are. In the presence of a powerful stranger. 

This is me, bowing to you, in this strange space. 
I see you. I honor you. Let’s begin. 

The Freedom of Self-Imposed Constraints

If it is true that nothing is more terrifying for an artist/creative than the blank canvas or blank page, then it may also be true that the faster we get something on there, the more quickly we can free ourselves from such terror.

Before I learned to write every day, I spent about a decade either trying to write for too long (as if I could finish my opus in a month or something) or putting it off and feeling sick ––and who wouldn’t, with stakes and expectations so unrelentingly high? I started and stopped what I was trying to make a practice, more times than I can count.  Needless to say, I rarely finished anything. 

Write to save your life, is one prompt that I would never give to a student. But that’s exactly what I did to myself when I was trying to “be a writer” then. I was full of a destructive sort of “no pain, no gain” mentality, which I thought meant you were “serious.” If the point is to talk about the dramatic moment staying up all night, I suppose it could be effective. But if the point is to develop something lasting and long term, such as a body of work over a lifetime, it’s disastrous. In high school and college, I tended to apply the same model to my athletic training, and as a result, I was chronically injured and unable to compete for numerous seasons. 

I suspect that I was at least partially influenced by the incredible expectations I was feeling, from many areas of dominant culture, about the supremacy of youth. A writer I admired once said to a class, “If you haven’t made it happen by twenty-six, forget it,” and while there must have been some context for this, it was lost on me, and all I could feel after graduation was the pressure of “It,” and I think Stephen King made a brilliant choice for a title of one of his most well-known horror novels. Turning a creative impulse into an “It” is a great way to create a lot of drama, but it’s a horror and a disaster to live through. I had no practice to sustain any creative “vision” I could dream, and I had yet to learn that the daily practice of growing the work over time was what I really wanted. It’s much less glamorous, much more accessible, and much more sustaining.  

Then I stumbled on the idea of 15 minutes a day. Then 3 pages. Then I tried adding one hour in the evenings. Now there’s no drama about whether or not writing is going to happen. It’s no longer a big deal. It just does. To learn this, I needed to limit my expectations. This meant being humble, honest, and patient. I had to drop the unreasonable vague product-oriented timeline, and just grow. Not so I could be some superstar, but so I could live. 

 “Waiting for Summer” by Nicholas Erwin on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

I keep having to adjust the parameters and re-teach myself this lesson. When I started this daily blog project, it was a big step for me. I noticed that while the posts were generally short (the sort of thing that could be drafted in 15-20 minutes or less) I could easily not get them done until late in the day because I would decide I wasn’t “ready” or “didn’t have an idea.” In summer and in-between writing projects this might work, but in a few weeks, I am going to revert to my “normal” schedule with all of its typical demands and then some, plus I’ve added this. Plus I want to begin work on a new manuscript soon. I realized I had a choice: either plan on being unable to sustain it at some point or make a strict limit. So now I am limited to 15 minutes to think, 15 to write, and the rest of an hour to type, find (most) typos, add links and an image, and post. That’s it. Some are better than others, but all are the best I can do in a given time frame. No time for grand ideas or clever concepts. Just a daily offering, and no longer a big deal. I’ve scaled down my expectations some to make it so, and now I do not have a doubt that I can do it for a year (then two, three, and so on . . .), even during very hectic days. If all I have to work with is an hour, and it gets sidelined in the morning, I’ll find it later. But usually, I can control the early morning, so most days this is doable.  

Since trying this, I’ve noticed that I’m already able to dream other projects more fully, because my mental space is freed up after my morning post. I’ve been more relaxed, and I am learning to trust that something can always be made “from scratch” the next day. This post is written on a day that I admittedly have “no new ideas,” just this thing I was noticing all last week, after implementing a new constraint, which now limits my ability to plan on finding a “better idea.”

If it is true that nothing is more terrifying for an artist/creative than the blank canvas or blank page, then it may also be true that the faster we get something on there, the more quickly we can free ourselves from such terror. What comes after that is so much more interesting, anyway. 

Here are some constraints I like to use:
•    Set a timer for 15 minutes. Pick up pen. Write. Stop at timer (unless you really can’t). Notice how fast the time went. 
•    Limit a daily exercise to something relevant to the history of a given day.
•    Prompts like this: In today’s short piece, include a childhood object, a famous dead person, and a favorite activity.
•    Start writing. Don’t stop till you fill 3 pages. No lifting pen off page. 
•    Write one page in the voice of _______________.
•    Open the dictionary at random. Choose the first word you see. Write it down (if you don’t know what it means, include the definition). Repeat five times. Now write a short exercise using all 5 words.
•    [for late afternoon sessions] Take a snack with you to the writing table. Don’t make dinner until you do this (short) thing. 

Lesson learned––again. Constraints are freeing and they allow me to focus. They teach and re-teach me to overcome paralysis of thinking. And they are a lot more fun than wondering what to do and listening to that nagging voice insisting that it isn’t good enough. 

The Large Bathers

I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

A person much better schooled than I am in the subject of art history recently observed that Cezanne was obviously frightened of women. I thought of his large nudes and my first impulse was disbelief based on the forms he painted; based on The Large Bathers alone, but then I looked again and saw what might have been immediately apparent, had I been less than thoroughly schooled in the superiority of binary notions. As in, an idea that the beautiful and the terrifying live in opposite poles; an idea that an artist’s preoccupation is the familiar and never the unknown; the idea that knowing well somehow cancels the haunting aspect of mystery. 

Schooling in the superiority of one thing over another is a very different thing from being schooled properly in the anatomy of a body of interconnected parts, in which even the poles of a supposed binary are reliant on one another for existence. For example, it is possible (and even likely) to be raised Catholic and read very little of the Bible beyond the red words. But then you look more closely, and you see how he was with the women and with the sick and the dead and you learn much later – by this time, you are actively looking, following a hunch and the wisdom of scholars who have managed not to sever their minds from their hearts–– that the most concise truth in Biblical letters is: Jesus wept. This at the death of Lazarus, when he knew he would raise him–– or perhaps he came to know this in weeping for his friend. You look at this liberator, his patience with the lepers and the new-dead sons, the accused whores left for dead and the tax collectors, and the Roman soldiers, and even Pilate himself who had little choice, and you think, here is a capital-M man, in an actual body, bound to be hunted for execution by the forces feeding on obedience of the same lowercase men holding a jagged rib like a shiv at Eve’s naked throat, and the fact that this was obscured so thoroughly hits with all of the imagined weight and pressure of the first nail.

Paul Cezanne’s The Large Bathers,  Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, posted by jpellgen on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license. 

Then I look at the nudes again, and I see it, the way that naked truth becomes the terror in the night, how most of the time someone claiming to want it is just dropping coins by mouth into a coffer at an expected time, a fee more commonly known as lip service, which might be more aptly described as the words spoken in the name of an embodied mystery which has been bound and gagged prior to the press conference. I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work

You pessimistic-fantastical visionary of hopes and fears! Jerome of the forest, you left no letters or diaries: what now?

TO:           Hieronymous Bosch

FROM:           Curious 

CC:           Anyone else who might be wondering

DATE:           Now

SUBJECT:         That Garden You Painted

        also:  The way your work is frequently invoked 

                        as an experiential reference point. 

                        As in, This year is feeling very Hieronymous Bosch.  

                        Your name as an adjective–– as with Kafka, or Dali.

                  How one might want to inquire as to your thoughts.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, oil on oak panels, 205.5 cm × 384.9 cm (81 in × 152 in), Museo del Prado, Madrid

You: pessimistic-fantastical visionary of hopes and fears,
Jerome of the forest, you left no letters or diaries: what now?

We look on, knowing nothing, about what you “probably meant.” And yet:
You likely lived six decades or more in the house your grandfather built.

You watched, at thirteen, the burning fire of four-thousand homes in your town. You didn’t always favor Flemish style; the transparent glaze concealed.

You wanted revelation, went impasto; rough, to point to your hand.
As if to reject the presumption that it was God painting the forms.

You even signed some; most were lost. The God of your garden was youthful.
How big the fruit! What a menagerie, waiting to explode back home.

It welcomes a memory, of taking great care with a painting of marker on white.
I filled the page with detail; this was first grade, we were asked to draw the garden
I could not wait to be seen, for I knew. What a marvel. I could not wait,
            to share in its delight!
Butterflies cocooned in my center of knowing; I would explode out, soon.

I filled the page with detail in first grade; we drew the garden.
Nobody asked me for a unicorn; I knew it was perfect like I knew drawing breath
Butterflies cocooned in the center, like promises, I would reveal myself soon. 
Teacher made the rounds and paused at my desk; I drew in breath, feeling her moved.

Nobody asked me for a unicorn. There were none in the garden, she told me.
Those are pagan, she said. This was confusion. I thought garden was everything good, and unicorns the best of all time.

She was moved to remind me that everything I ever wanted was exactly the reason for the fall. I was a mute, infant Eve, holding my half-eaten fruit. It soured quickly. I did not draw for her again.

Dear Jerome, your work here raises questions about ambiguity.
Others see total alignment with orthodoxies of your time. Still,
isn’t it ironic, at least somewhat, how much heaven in your hell?

Heavens from earth, the third day, enter this paradise lost. Come in, now!
Rabbits dance behind Eve, suggestive of mating; cautionary tale?
Or just good loving? And what about the dragon tree: eternal life?

Here giraffe, here elephant, here a lion eating prey. Pray, what’s that?!
The cat has the lizard! And who is that cloaked figure reading, right there?
Is that a duck, behind a fish? Without shame? Only curious now.

Hey teens, don’t eat cherries with great lords; they’ll throw the pits in your face. Truth! Women carry fruit on heads; acrobats ride camels and unicorns.
Ladies strut with peacock pluck. Dance, dance, dance! Who waits for their entrance, here?

See winged fish, strawberry! Come inside this shell, land on constant youth!
No child or aged person in sight; they fly in tandem on eagle lions. 

They fly trees of life. See bird of death perched on branches. The gallant knight
wears a dolphin tail, scratching the back of his head; as above, so below.

Then comes damnation, or does it? The dark and cold are over the top, 
Waters frozen, fire waits: a bestiary for feasting on bodies.

City’s burning, river’s blood; crucified on instruments, the choir sings. 
Rotting trunks for tree-man’s arms, his body a broken shell; his gut pierced.

Beasts have at it; wolves eat the last knight; the dragon has run out again.
But Jerome, does it get annoying; everyone speculating about what you

meant; does it get old, everyone asking about the rules of the game,
and all the fine print, forgetting that the point was to play?

Remembering, Borges, Flights

The trick was to remember the state of dreaming. Then I had to flap really hard.

Morning.
Morning!

The dreams are gone again. Memory is full of holes.
Mind the gap!

Do you know whose memory is the least contaminated?
A baby’s?

Maybe, but not what I was thinking. 
?

A patient with amnesia.
?

They can’t contaminate by remembering. It just comes.
And goes.

Right, a free flow. 
Did you hear about the artist with face blindness?

To lose one face is enough. Imagine losing them all.
She made interesting self-portraits. She did them in the dark, feeling her face, adding paint to canvas; feeling again. Art as an act of looking, free of the presumption of sight.

Do goldfish really have only eight seconds of it?
Memory?

Yes, or is this just a myth told to children who would otherwise be very sad about the creature in the bowl, in the plastic bag from the fair, doomed to this constant back and forth?
Borges called it a pile of broken mirrors. 

The fishbowl?
Memory.

He died on this day, in 1986.
That was the year I forgot how to fly in my dreams.

How?
The trick was to remember the state of dreaming. Then I had to flap really hard. My arms, because that’s all I had, no wings or feathers.

Yeah, but how did you forget?
Whoever knows, but that year my dreams or something started taking me too hard and fast, I could not remember until it was too late. 

Borges said there are no images at the end, only words.
Remember 1986?

There were bombs everywhere in the news. I didn’t see them up close, but I worried.
They were waiting under parked cars, in office buildings, churches, synagogues, planes.

It was my first Communion year. I remember waiting to be suffused in light. 
The Challenger exploded. I remember the plumes of flame and smoke on the screen. My second-grade teacher had wheeled the television into the classroom so we could see it live, the techno-miracle of space travel.

Chernobyl, too.
After that, radioactive deposits were found in every country in the northern hemisphere.

There was a human chain that year, five million links long from New York to Long Beach. 
As a reminder, right?

Yes, of hunger. Homelessness. Easily forgotten by the housed and fed.
They were flooding the streets.

This was Reagan’s America. It was popular to cite an epidemic of laziness, compounded by drugs, as the reason. 
Just say No, but the hands did something else.

Said yes?
No, they answered another question. A better one. The question of the body before you. 

Answer like an open hand.
Right. Like, “Here.”

Do you remember Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings?
He observed that there are dragons in every part of the world.

Yeah, he said we don’t know what they mean, only that they are always there.
What memories do they hold; what future projections? 

I love his face, Borges. How it would light up when he smiled.
He must have been something in person.

Like a baby. Or a person who has forgotten everything and sees only––
Light?

The play of light and shadow.
An uninterrupted flow.

I love watching babies before their vision develops.
Their faces, do you mean?

Yeah, how they light up and start laughing at something in the ceiling.
And you watch them, and you wonder what are they seeing?

And why can’t I?
We probably used to.

But I can’t remember.


“Dragon” by Aqva on flickr under an Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license.



*The idea of a patient with amnesia as having the least contaminated memory comes from Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, as described beautifully in Maria Popova’s Brainpickings article: “Ongoingness: Sarah Manguso on Time, Memory, Beginnings and Endings, and the True Measure of Aliveness.” 


* A story about artist known as Carlotta appears in the BBC News, and the documentary about her journey, “Lost in Face” appeared in a BBC News article by Vibeke Venema, “Prosopagnosia: The Artist in Search of Her Face,” published August 16, 2020. BBC World Service.

Forms

Considering various mediums, and the interfaces between seen and unseen.

Every medium has its own personality. Paper is delicate so everything gets a dreamy fluid quality, light dissolving over the landscape. On paper you can see the smudge of erasure, the changes, the trial and error. Consider the difference between this and something like film, or film-less photos, those bodies of pixellated light in captivity.

With photographs everything looks like something that a crazed nostalgic is trying to freeze outside of time. Oil on canvas: longings laid bare, to hold what will not be held. The time spent anyway, squinting. 

A bedside book in childhood: Lives of the Saints, dog-eared at Joan of Arc, because of the way she didn’t flinch, that insistently, cross-dressing soul. I think her gift was less that she heard a voice all day long telling her what to do, but that she listened.

Now it’s art books, too heavy to lift with one hand, propped open across a chest and half-waking dreams of Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder, all the near-transparent souls climbing doggedly into blinding light, none looking as though they have any idea what it may be, but there it is waiting, anyway, pouring over and through their bodies and their steps in a luminous column and you get the sense that they’re climbing forever like a white-knuckled novena, World Without End.

Joan was burned at the stake for three reasons: one, she wore pants; two, she wore them into battle; three, what she said about the voice she heard, even after it was clear what would happen if she didn’t retract. There was a line between what you could see and may not see. She crossed.

Before he painted Jacob’s Ladder, William Blake was getting regularly arrested for bar fights, and after he painted his opus, he died, as the legend goes, amid visions of angels. What did he see in them, I wonder, and how was it different from the eternities he saw in hours, the heavens in his wildflowers, or the worlds he found in grains of sand?

A want to hold it all in an instant, the forever dream against countless suggestions that seeing something is almost always very different than seeing everything, and the end of the world something different than the end of every known part. 

“Jacob’s Ladder” by José María Pérez Nuñez on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic License.