Wednesday, August 25, 2010

on the Shores of Lake Michigan...

This is me and Kate, relaxing on the shores of Lake Michigan. We're in Milwaukee, visiting my mom. But someone had dragged a picnic table down to the sea and bolted it to a broken-up concrete dock. Sitting at this beautiful place I thought that I wanted to make time stop. I wanted to stay here forever. A young couple were walking by. Perhaps they weren't older than sixteen. He had a lot of tattooes. She was a petite Asian girl with a fair amount of facial piercings. And I asked them to take our pic w/Kate's phone. Which is what they did. They were very nice about it and told us to have a good day. Which we did.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

After Seeing Matisse in Morocco

I have always been interested on the impact of travel on the artist. How seeing new things makes us produce new things. Flaubert in Egypt, Lady Montague in Turkey, Hemingway in Spain. And so on. Travel gives the artist a new perspective. A different angle on the world. It gets us out of our rut. I'm not entirely sure why this is so, but it is. Perhaps it is just literally so. We see with different eyes.

There is, however, a favorite quote of mine from Proust. Travel isn't about seeing new places. It is about seeing with new eyes. I love this quote. It makes me think about a book I am reading now. A wonderful meditation called "The Sounds of a Wild Snail Eating." The bedridden author who cannot go anywhere is given a wild snail by a friend who picked it up in the woods. "I thought you'd enjoy it," the friend said. The narrator then spends the entire book observing her snail. With new eyes as Proust would say. And I'm sure he'd approve of her meditation. It is as beautiful and evocative writing about stasis that I have ever read.

But for those of us who can walk through portals into new worlds the newness of places enriches us. And it was clear it did so for Matisse in Morocco. I have always loved Matisse. In my own paintings, such as the one above, the influence is clear. (I feel influence and imitation are perfectly legitimate artistic endeavors. Enriching in fact. Think about the Picasso/Matisse rivalry. Only wonderful art came of it.)

Back to Matisse, I love his sense of color perhaps more than anything. The way he balances colors. And his blue paintings. The shapes. There are some amazing images in the MoMA show. For me Matisse remains fresh.

The other day Larry and I went to see the Matisse show at MoMA. I had no idea when I went that Matisse had spent time in Morocco and that it had a big influence on his art. The coincidence is that we are going to Morocco in October and it was amazing to see the kind of work - the new colors, composition, the shapes - Matisse brought to the work he did after being in Morocco. And many of these works were completed years after he returned.

It has always been a kind of cliche that travel enriches us. A junior year abroad, a travel to the continent, a journey into farther, less familiar realms. But the fact is, it does. We do see things differently. We gather material with our eyes, our noses, our ears. In Matisse's notebooks and letters we see the sketches he made for what would later become his Morocco paintings, including the famous Les Moroccans. I love seeing the germs of ideas in travel journals.

I feel as if our journey to Morocco has already begun. And we only had to ride the D train to get there.

Les Moroccans - from the MoMA Matisse catalogue

Matisse conceived this "souvenir of Morocco" in 1912, stretched a canvas for it in 1913, and returned to the composition late in 1915, only to start again on a new canvas in early 1916. Black is the principal agent, at once simplifying, dividing, and joining the three zones of the canvas: the still life of melons and leaves on a gridded pavement, bottom left; the architecture with domed marabout, top left; and the figures, at right. Next to a seated Moroccan shown from behind, the large curving ocher shape and circular form derive from a reclining figure in the sketches. Above the shadowed archway, figures in profile may be discerned in the two windows: at right, the lower part of a seated man; at left, the upper part of a man with raised arms. Matisse built up the surface with thin layers of pigment, the color of the underlying layers modifying those on top. Painter Gino Severini reported that "Matisse said . . . that everything that did not contribute to the balance and rhythm of [this] work, had to be eliminated . . . as you would prune a tree."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Met A Traveller...

Yesterday I was leaving Milwaukee, heading back to New York. I'd spent a rather difficult weekend, visiting family, and I was ready to get home. I checked in and had a little time to kill. Not that much, but enough for a glass of wine.

I stopped in at the Brewhouse, but the bar was kind of full. I jockied a bit for position. Then a nice young man with glasses who was reading a book made room for me. He gestured to a chair beside him and I settled in. As I ordered my Pinot Grigio, I noticed that he was reading a very old book of poetry. I could see that its pages were tattered; its binding was leather.

As he sipped his Scotch and chased it with a beer, I couldn't help but comment. "That's a very old book you're reading," I said.

The young man nodded and told me that he'd just picked it up at the unusually fine used book store, "Renaissance Books," that sits in the middle of Milwaukee airport. I never actually know what that bookstore is doing there, but, to the delight of my husband and me, it sells a lot of fine, rare editions - even as it sits beside the Harley Davis memorabilia store with a Starbucks across the way. Whenever I have a lot of time to kill at this airport, I usually spend it in that store. "I like poetry," he said.

We chatted a bit about books and travel. He told me he likes to pick up books wherever he goes. I glanced at the beautifully engraved leather binding, the crumbling yellowed pages. He wondered if it might be a first edition. The thought struck me as well. "You should have it appraised," I told him. "It might be worth something." I told him how my daughter, Kate, had picked up a very rare Gustave Doree illustrated Don Quixote at a stoop sale and it turned out to be quite valuable.

He turned to the frontespiece where the date "1860" had been written in by hand. "Yes," he mused, "You're probably right." He paused. "But I'm going to keep this one." I watched as he fondled the leather cover, protected by an acetane jacket.

"You're right. I think you should."

Somehow we got to talking more about travel and reading and languages and how much he wanted to learn more languages and how he was interested in art and sculpture. Whenever he had time on his hands, which wasn't that often, he looked at art. I asked him where he was going and he said he was going to Delaware to visit his mother. He hadn't seen her in many months because he had been deployed for the past nine months.

"Army?" I asked.

"No, I'm a Marine," he told me.

"Oh, that's great," I replied, turning back to my wine. Then I looked at him again. "Isn't it kind of unusual for a Marine to be reading Shelley?"

He smiled at me, "Yes, it is..." Then he began to talk, telling me how he's a geek Marine. How he's always loved poetry and art (and how he wants to write poetry which didn't come as a surprise). He'd been on Okinawa for the past year. It was a dry, dusty place. I asked him if he'd seen action. "No. I'm an aviation electrician." My mind wandered to St. Exupery - the war pilot who was also a writer. He wrote The Little Prince, of course. The plane he went down in in l943 has recently been recovered.

We spoke a little longer - about keeping journals. I told him that I was a writer and I always kept a journal with me. He asked how he could get his poetry published. I told him to read "Best American Poetry" and send poems to the magazines listed in the back.

He thanked me. "I'm a warrior," he said. "I'm supposed to have a warrior mentality, but I'm conflicted...I'm not sure."

"You should write about that," I told him. I mentioned Stephen Crane, Wilfred Owen, Enri Remarquee, Tim O'Brien. The chroniclers of war. There's a precedent, I told him. And I don't know whose writing about this now.

He smiled. "I will," he told me. "I'm going to write about that..."

I realized I was late. Very late for my plane. We shook hands. His palm was moist, sweaty. A sign of nervousness, I believe. I didn't ask his name and he didn't ask mine as I dashed off, wondering if he'd start sending out his poems. If I'd read a memoir from a conflicted warrior someday...

I raced towards security, begged my way towards the front of the line, put my shoes and belt back on in the area Milwaukee called the "Recombobulation Area" which I loved. I ran to the jetway where I narrowly made my flight. As I tumbled into my sea, the words rushed through my brain...

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.[1]

Perhaps one day my marine will write something like that...

It was one of those chance encounters we have on the road every day. At a cafe in Rome, on a ferry dock in Honduras. You meet someone and share with him something about where you've been, where you're going. A word of advice, or warning might make all the difference. We never know if we've helped a person move past despair, out of doubt into hope. As I said to my friend, Susan, yesterday afternoon, we never know if we've helped someone find a path.

On the flight the woman beside me was sharing a huge bucket of fried chicken with her son. Across the aisel an enormous woman with a woven pink scarf wrapped around her head sang hymns all the way to New York. I didn't really mind. I thought about my Marine. I wondered if our chance encounter would make a difference in his life. He'd made a difference in mine.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The only way out...

is to write your way out...

Someone said this to me once and I know it's true.

There was a dream I had many years ago. I was living in Cambridge, in grad school, and pretty miserable. I dreamt that I was walking down a Paris street and inside I saw Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, sipping campari and sodas. The name of the cafe was Lascati Ogni Speranza Voi Que Entrate. The "Leave Behind All Hope Ye Who Enter Here." Which is what is written over the Gates of Hell in the Inferno (I was studying Dante at the time).

But I wanted to be a writer so I went inside. I sat at a bistro table and ordered my campari and soda too and as I did my bistro table and I fell into a deep, dark hole in the center of the earth. Clearly there was no way out. Suddenly six men arrived with a coffin which they placed before me. When they left, I understood that my fate was in that coffin. I opened it and the coffin turned into a rolltop desk with paper for eternity.

Shortly thereafter I left graduate school, packed up my few possessions, including my typewriter, and moved to New York.

This is a painting of my friend, Matthea's orange typewriter. I sketched it one day when I was over. I really love her typewriter (the real one). It is small, simple, and bright as a setting sun. It made me think of a journey I took many years ago with my then fiance. We were going to go backpacking through Europe for six weeks, but he decided to bring a typewriter to a friend of his mother's. An old woman, living on an Island in Greece...I'm not going to go into that whole story right now except to say that I wrote about it in my second collection of stories. A story called "The Typewriter."

Writers have to write. Whether it's yellow pads, journals, typewriters, laptops, it is what we do. Someone once gave me the ten ways that you can recognize if you are an alcoholic and they had substituted the word "write" for the word "drink." Do you write in the morning. Do you feel you have to write every day. If you don't write, do you get irritable or even angry.

I answered yes to all. I am sure many of you would as well

As far as I can tell, it is the only way out of the hole.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Writer and the Wanderer: The Goldilock's Syndrome

The Writer and the Wanderer: The Goldilock's Syndrome: "Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and had no idea where I was. As the room came into focus, I saw the bed, walls, windows. ..."

The Goldilock's Syndrome

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and had no idea where I was. As the room came into focus, I saw the bed, walls, windows. But where was this room? In a small hotel in Istanbul, in the South of Spain. Was it at my cousins' farm? Was I home? I didn't know where the door was or the way to the bathroom.

Then, slowly, it came to me. I was in Amherst, attending a friend's wedding. But I had been sleeping in so many beds in the last several months that it took a while for me to be sure. I have taken to calling this "The Goldilock's Syndrome." A kind of traveler's cognitive amnesia. A little like "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium," but not quite.

This comes, I think, from a deeper place. The confusion, at least in my experience, isn't just about place. It is also about time. Am I a little girl again? Do I need to get ready for school? Is my daughter home? And where's the dog. Perhaps because I move around so much, my coordinates in time and space are often confused. Some day I wake up a teenager in love. Fortunately I have never projected myself far in to the future.

Last night at the wedding Larry and I were talking with one of our hosts. He is an optical engineer and he was explaining how he had been working on a lens that sees into the past - millions of years into the past, in fact - at galaxies that existed before life began. And he said there is actually a way that one could see into the future. There is a way that one lens can bounce of another. Like the Navajo, I said. Past, present, future, it all exists in one vast continuum of space and time.

So perhaps I was waking up in that hotel room in Istanbul. An apartment in Paris. Some funky Mexican town. I was sixteen. I was thirty. My heart was broken. I was home. Or I was with my husband, in a B&B in Massachusetts, a little hung over. The bathroom was to my right. The exit was behind me.

Once I located myself in time, I was able to locate myself in space.

But for just a moment I could have been anywhere.