Games of Shadow and Being

I am sitting deep in a garden after the sun has moved on; surrounded by trees thick with leaves, I feel like I’m in a well of grass.  The atmosphere is swimming with filtered light, blue green, yellow green.  The trees are budded, bonded, arabesqued, with fir needles and  cypress needles, massive oak and holly.  I look up from the bottom of their shadow ocean, as ripples of light toy with things, as shadows fall from forms onto grass. They spend their time leaping and teasing, suggesting that if you try to catch them, it will be a dizzying game. 

This week has already been dizzying.  The Jewish High Holy Days come with a plunge into memory and reflection, games and deflections of self-awareness.  Yom Kippur, in particular, often opens me to timelessness, a slice of nonlinear time.  At moments, I have flashes of everyone who has ever blown or heard a ram’s horn, which is a lot!  Put another way, the shofar cuts a rift through time and the fabric of particulars.  

With the shofar, you can journey down deep, following a journey through wilderness to howling nothingness.  But all is not lost – in the well you still have breathing equipment, and deep in the darkness you acquire translucent vision. I came up with a gasp of breath and some “bendies.” I returned with an appreciation of the shadow that accompanies being, keen to watch the two of them stride along.

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That Crystalline 9/11 Sky

People have fixated on the New York sky of 9/11, as if such a perfect, crystalline sky could not have produced such horror.  I love that September blue that I might find in the Mediterranean or faraway islands: deep and saturated of color, yet transparent, both a well of feeling and container of emptiness.  It’s like peering deep into a jewel, a sapphire, only to spin in its possibility, its sparkle of life.  That Henri Matisse anointed the North American atmosphere as special — “so dry, so crystalline, like no other” — seals it. It’s a verifiable wonder.

And yet, the skyscrapers that Matisse saw tapering upward until they assumed the quality of light crumbled in that sky, severed by hijacked planes in that sky.  

As we look upward with our confusion, the sky will be clear, light shimmering as it catches little particles.  It has blinked and renewed itself.  

Matisse looked up and saw, in his 1944 cut-out, Icarus falling from the sky with a shattered red heart.  It was World War II, a pilot was falling from the lumunious blue sky.  The sky then renewed itself. 

Simone Weil said of the sea: ships are wrecked and sailors are drowned.  The sea causes grief. But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

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The Closing Rituals of Summer

We did it, we celebrated summer, in spite of it all.  We fulfilled the ritual, as we had to; the body needs its sense of itself, to immerse in water and shifting light and in joy.  It needs to entertain its thought experiments — what if we don’t worry? – by digging toes into wet sand and by scaling mountain peaks.  It needs to create stage sets where it can play, live and come to deeply believe in the “here and now,” not as decoration but in all its vibrant seriousness. 

The summer, that defiant romp against despair, is closing with the opening of a book.  I’m not thinking about September teaching or classes, though that’s happening around me, but about Rosh Hashanah.  As a bookish kid, I was always delighted that the Jewish Holidays included God cracking open his BRook — it was the book that mattered.

In that Book of Life names are written, then sealed. The concept carries serious weight, but this year I’m giving it a different spin.  The turning that we do, teshuvah, turning over a new leaf, returning to true and better selves is like turning or stitching of material that poets indulge in.  We thread one thing against and into another. Bursts of strong emotion or image might end a line to be met with contradiction on the next.  All paradox, all voices welcome!  I can understand our contemporary turbulence as voices breaking in on each other.  Beauty is stitched with grief, and against the tragic bursts the intimate.  Dark absurdity is patched with innocence. And personal failings open onto something bigger, a collective standing together.  That stitching, that turning to the whole is the next ritual I’m falling into. 

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The Volatile, Mutable Moods of Summer

To be hot and uncomfortable; to be cool, a slight shiver from the shower, body meets air with friction.  

To feel free, unfettered, released from questions that seem to dissolve themselves; to find those questions pulling down your head. 

To have revelation, something suddenly click alongside the high-octane drone of insects; to rage at the power drill, fork lift, big digger and ever-present mower. 

To dwell in the scent of trees — pine, eucalyptus, thyme; to dwell, then flee the essential oils that will spontaneously burst into flame.  

To love the high sun before the hurricane when people with the best muscles are allowed to use them on the boulevard. To study the canvas of sweat on my burnt orange tent dress, a diagram of where the body folds.

To love the light and shadow chasing each other across the grass, the atmosphere the Impressionists would have painted with a tint of violet.  To feel shadows looking like a pair of hunting dogs tired from their day, lolled out under a pair of chaises longues.  

To wait up with the too-humid night sky, its swirling winds with nowhere to go,  like small-town hoods, lazy and looking for a fight.  To wake up to a hurricane, expressing itself.

To stay in the indelible truth of a face, even the eye of a hurricane. To stave off the heavy arms of the past and the cut-free kite of the future as the hurricane passes.

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Wars, Metaphor, Headless in Red

We’ve been here before, when a swath of color — a flawless blue sky, a ribbon-smooth sea  — rides alongside an event of horror.   Both in immediacy and memory, the high sapphire sky of September 11 marked and continue to mark me.  The beauty was somehow inconceivable yet perfectly part of the reality of that day.  

Today, August 15.  The swift brutal fall of Afghanistan in high summer.  On one screen, horror, on another a rare glittering day, transparent blue shimmer on a local bay.   A flock of swans have gathered in the shallow waters near shore — young swans, cygnets or teenagers gliding in the waters as if poking around at the mall. 

At a loss for characterizing the debacle of Afghanistan, I go personal, come across a photo I’d idly titled, “Headless Against Red.” Doesn’t it seem like us — at once elegant, posing in the suppleness of our draped clothing, yet not whole?  Us the civilized, the severed, somehow standing though not in charge.  We appear against carmine and scarlet, the pulse and passion of life so beyond our grasp.  Red wounds with its beauty and wildness; we border it with an elegant stance, never containing it, but reverberating against its life.  The bloodiness of severing might have a much more gruesome reality in Kandahar and Kabul.  The photo probably caught my eye because my unconscious made the association. It takes a metaphor, with distance, to begin to process.

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The Thinginess of Summer

An August Sunday in the city —  empty, empty, empty.  The streets are clearer, blacker, more asphalty, an open stage, an asphalt canvas.  Things, so subsurvient to people, step up their presence and shine. The shopping bag is always heavier than the slim arm of the walker whose shorts seem longer than his legs.   Orange day lilies have their heady moment, erupting through scrabbly soil and gravelly roadsides; they earn their nicknames — outhouse day lily, roadside, railroad, ditch, washhouse, mailbox, tiger, tawny.  The posts of street lights commune with trees.  The bike dreams the leisurely biker. 

It reminds me of the older version of boredom that used to be baked into summer — good boredom, a chance for something else to erupt through the hard-wired, conquesting surface of  the year’s ambitions.   Reverie and its twin, ennui, will get edged out by extreme weather, health, plagues, breakdowns, etc.  An air current lazing through a screen door, undeterred, unhampered is good work if you can get it.

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A Flâneur Surveys the Damage

How does the flâneur come back to her city after a war is over, after a breakup, an illness, a chasm, a separation of any sort?  When I’m walking my little city (really more of a village), I find that taking stock of sites of loss is too risky. Instead, I keep my feet on the ground and eye attuned to what remains, what’s there.  It goes without saying that my eye also registers what’s not there — the invisible makes a strong mark. 

What delights me is the people who pop up unexpectedly — faces whom I knew as part of a daily geography, key to the routine and habits that made up a 24-hour-day.  If I lived in a real village, they would sell cigarettes and phone cards in the tabac, or be handing off a baguette in exchange for a few coins, or be selling fresh fish or putting new soles on my shoes.  In the urban village, they could be the doorman at the apartment building, or be the super, the bus driver, gym trainer, the face at the entry to school. 

Yesterday, it was the dyed-blond barista who popped up in a café window, bright with fresh shining platinum hair (a young Debbie Harry type), no new nose rings, maybe less armor in her expression.  I was surprised at how familiar she was when I’d known her so little, and from her expression, she felt the same.  Shock of the old.  There was none of the earnest, hour-long covid confessional in the simple “how are you?” — but there she was, solid in her Doc Martens, twisting the espresso handles, all vibrant presence. 

I haven’t seen the guy with the existential crisis that I could identify by his question-mark posture, seen from the front or back.  Or a homeless woman who perched on a particular bench, near a stone portico.  People are repeopling cities that were glass and brick holders. The little shocks of familiar become the eloquence of daily continuation where we find ourselves now.

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Santa Fe on Thinner Oxygen

How rare to travel as an amateur or emigrant, so ignorant of a well-trod place that you let the place’s magic play with your “free gaze.”   I, Rhode Islander, arrive with little knowledge of New Mexico.  D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, retirees and moneyed Texans stay way in my back pocket.  I take in a sightline that’s not East Coast congested, but vast and open. The roads are straight — endless — cutting through an artist’s range of pinks, ochres, yellows.  The desert unfolds like an ocean of silver-sagebrush meets horizion.  Everything breathes on thinner oxygen.  The light makes rocks and cactus levitate.  Cactus are wan and colorless until they burst into hot colors like cartoons.  Veils of rain trail from navy-dark clouds you can see in some distance town.  Sunset over a layered plane that looks like the bottom of the sky.  In sum, an otherworldliness.   

As poet Adam Zagajewski writes, to the emigrant, a rush of rain on a Paris boulevard can be Notre Dame’s equal.  He also talks of how a workaday place falls prey to the “innocent sabotage of the free gaze, thus splitting it into disconnected atoms.”   So the morning sunbeam opens the doors of vision.  It doesn’t negate the tragedy of the native tribes but observing legacy of history in situ, witnessing the past in landscape, the native absence and presence becomes more felt.  Paul Celan’s term “what happened,’ expresses the horror of what can’t be named here too. 

There is Tsankawi, white pumice bone stone volcanic lava carved like ancient condos into 354 dwellings by the Pueblos.  We meet an artist carving sacred wood with a power tool from the ledge of his truck in a town with a sacred mud well.   And throughout the state is woven an impulse to let phenomena saturate — to hear the Earth breathe, speak, be.  To listen to silence that is full of shimmering leaves or trickling sand as waves carry it  through unfolding moments. To hear seeds in the paper-thin casement of dried nora peppers.

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The Fruited, Tuffed Red, White & Blue

Happy Birthday, Red, White and Blue, our fragile young democracy. Young because all the people were given voting rights only with the Civil Rights movements of the ’60s, fragile because those rights to vote are being eroded by forces at the highest levels, democracy because it’s an aspirational idea that way back we dreamt, fought for and put on paper. We are as unstable as water, as pale though tough as volcanic rock, as shiftingly desirable as berries — one nation under an ever-changing composition of values and character beyond our flag’s colors.

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World of Curious Delights

Simphiwe Ndzube Assertion of Will

I usually like to run and immerse myself in a world of earthly delights.   It’s a yes-world, a way of soaking in color, judiciously chosen openness.   What would my first long-awaited travel be like, after being sprung from lockdown?

It was immersion, but not the same yes kind —  a vast world of strangers, airports made of retractable bands and systems and uniformed people.  Alongside immersion was interrogation.  I don’t mean security and pat-downs, though that existed — I mean the world interrogating me, and me interrogating the world.  It was made of strangers — better word: strange.  The settings were familiar — I know airports and Denver, where I have landed many times, with its dung-colored scruff and line of blue mountains in the distance, emptiness that gives way to four, then eight lanes of black suburban highways.  It kept asking questions, forming and reforming, my curiosity tinged with neither trust nor distrust.  All real, this world I belong to but now, how exactly?  

Under all the real things, something was walking with me — the violence of the past year.  The idea that the naked truth had been exposed, and dark reality had emerged into plain view.  After all that death, what was appearing was a posthumous world.  Interrogate that!

Even if that vision is extreme, will recede, too dark to be the whole truth, it speaks of complexities of experience.  Two thinks at the same time.  In Denver, I saw a superb exhibition by a young South African artist, Simphiwe Ndzube.  His “Oracles of the Pink Universe” plays on Hieronymous Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”  In his version, the familiar evil snake is transformed into Majole who, in his tradition, can signify a “welcome visitor, an ancestral incantation coming to pass along a message or a protector.”

The message is the mystery, and patience is the access code.  I’m trying to walk slowly with this ever-shifting world, curious as we unfold together.

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