Sunday, May 29, 2011

After the wedding: On detours and surprises.

Yesterday Larry and I went to a beautiful wedding. It was way uptown at the Union Theological Seminary. Held in a magnificent chapel, the guests sat in a circle and the minister said some moving things about why we were sitting in a circle, rather than in the tradition type of seating. How we were encompassing the bride and groom in a circle of love. It sounds a little hookey as I write this, but the way it was said...we were all touched.

After the reception Larry and I left by a backdoor. If we'd gone out the way we'd come in then what follows would never have happened, but we came out on to, I believe, Claremont Avenue and right in front of us was the Riverside Church.

When I was a graduate student at Columbia, I went to this church all the time. I'd go just to sit and be quiet or to hear a concert. I'd go for a lecture and occasionally a memorial service. But Larry had never been inside. It was a beautiful early evening and we had no other plans. We weren't in a hurry to get home. "Would you like to see the chapel?" I asked him.

Now we aren't big on churches. We don't really visit them in Europe the way other people do. I generally find them rather cold, impersonal places, but I've never felt this way at Riverside (Or at Chartres or Notre Dame or a few others either). At any rate we went in. The receptionist told us we only had a little time. So we climbed the stairs.

Once inside we were almost the only people there. There weren't any worshippers, it seemed. Just a few tourists with their cameras flashing and some rather loud group that seemed to be church officials. We sat in the middle, staring at the deep blue stained glass; the stone-carved altar, all done, I believe, by one man.

As we were sitting, I heard music. A recording, I assumed, of a piano sonata or concerto. A deeply romantic, powerful sound engulfed the hollow of the church. I was looking for a speaker and wondering why they'd put music on, just as the church was about to close.

A man approached us. He had a portfolio in his hand. He thought we were tourists, which I suppose in a way we were, and he started lecturing to us about the history of the church and showing us pictures he drew of the faces at the altar.

But I was still drawn to this music. Was it Horowitz? Emanuel Ax? Was it Rachmaninoff? Chopin? I wanted to know. Then as the man was lecturing to us, I noticed that right ahead of me, perhaps twenty rows from where I was seated, a young man was seated at the Steinway grand piano. He had pulled the cover back a little and, in fact, he was playing.

I excused myself to the man who was giving us the history of the altar sculpture and made my way up to the front rows. I quietly took a seat and watched as this young man, perhaps in his mid to late 20's played with as much grace and talent as I'd ever heard anyone. His girlfriend stood behind him. She smiled at me as I sat down.

Larry followed a few moments later. He sat behind me. I assumed that this young man was practicing for some performance later that evening. That he was testing the piano. Whatever he was doing, it didn't matter. I was sitting just few away from a master and I found myself propelled into whatever that space is - that kind of timeless, opened ended space - where art can take us.

Proust, of course, wrote about this. When Swann is transported by that little piece of music that makes him fall in love with Odette (a woman who was not "even to my taste; wasn't of my style"). So I was having one of those Proustian moments - not falling in love with a man, but with a moment.

Then we heard the shouting. "You gotta stop. I'm gonna lose my job." A woman in a guard uniform came racing up. "You can't do that. I'm gonna lose my job." She had some kind of clamps in her hand and the young man, nodding at her, asked for just a few more minutes. "You can't have another second. I gotta lock this thing up." And she proceeded to clamp the piano down.

With that the man stopped and stepped away. It was then that I realized that he had just decided to play that piano in the Riverside Church. He had pulled back the cover on that Steinway and began.

"Excuse me," I said to him as he rose, "but can you tell me what you were playing?" He said it was a Liszt sonota, for B minor. A thirty minute piece. "That was only a small part of it," he told me.

"So is this what you do?" I asked him as he rose. "Are you a concert pianist?" He nodded, taking his girlfriend's hand.

"Yes..." he replied, "Unfortunately."

"Unfortunately..." I wanted to ask him why he said that, but of course I understood. I know how art can be as much a curse, and perhaps more so, than a blessing.

This moment recalled another. I am a girl myself, not much older than this young man. I am on a train going from Lyons to Milan and a man sits across from me. He is old and tired and he has a very bad hip. His face is filled with suffering and pain. He begins to talk to me. He is a musician. He hates the musical life. He is always on the road. Never with his family. His misery just seems to go on and on. When we reach Milan, he tells me his name. "Antonio Janigro." At that time, along with Pablo Casals, one of the world's most famous cellists.

So I understood why he said unfortunately. I've said this myself too from time to time. I am a writer...alas. A blessing, yes, but at the same time, a curse.

Larry and I strolled out behind them. As we walked, I thought to myself how any time we take a detour, any time we are surprised, it is a kind of journey isn't it.

And at the same time, Henry James echoed through my mind. His words on the artist. "We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

We seemed to be following the young couple as they walked,arm in arm, through the Sakura Park just across from Riverside Church. But we weren't. We were walking the same too, just behind them as they turned off and disappeared into the International House. The student residence where, once, in another life it seems, I was a student too.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On Fearlessness...

My blog has been dormant for a few months now. I've been overwhelmed with work and found myself with little time to reflect. But yesterday at Sarah Lawrence graduation Arianna Huffington gave a wonderful speech. It was hilarious, smart, true, and at times very wise. Beyond telling the grads that they looked fabulous and that it was important for them to get more sleep, she also shared some of her wisdom, offering words that were particularly important to me.

That's because lately I've been waking up, trembling. My husband recognizes it right away. He tells me I have fear in my eyes. And he's right. My teaching year is ending and summer is about to begin. So what am I afraid of? The night train to Jabalpur, a tiger in the jungle, these are behind me.

No, this fear is inside. I've been posing that question that must plague most artists. What if I fail? Do I have the strength to keep doing what I do? Can I still write? Can I still tell a story? And, perhaps the most difficult, why is it that I feel as if every day I must begin again.

But Arianna spoke fearlessness. She said that fearlessness isn't about not being afraid because we are all afraid. It's about not letting fear get in the way of doing what you really want to do. I recall many years ago a young Cuban artist gave me this advice: When your ego gets in the way of your art, you are doomed for all eternity. Hum. Those were harsh words, but I did have a Rapture dream last night. I dreamt that an earthquake shook my house; the sun had moved closer to the earth. Clearly something is making me afraid. And it's not the end of the world. But fear...that comes always feeling as if our egos (and not our souls) are on the line.

A metaphor comes to mind. This past week I cooked dinner at home every night. Just for Larry and me. I rarely give that much thought or planning to a meal. I just look in the fridge or pantry and see what I have, what I need. A meal takes shape in my mind. It's not premeditated (See my blog entry from several months ago on writing being a crime of passion; not a premeditated act)

The first night I made an amazing turkey saussage boulagnaise, the next night lemony rock shrimp with orzo and dill. The third night sauteed chicken thighs with roasted broccolini, cauliflower, and potatoes. I must admit that each meal was delicious. Perfectly prepared. As my husband said, "You could serve these to anyone."

But the next night some of my students were coming over and I contemplated making them dinner. I started to think about it. To worry about it. I didn't ask myself what did I have to work with. Instead I began asking those questions: What would they like? How should I make it? And I found myself starting to get anxious. Would they like it? How much work would it take?

And I realized that I wasn't going to make dinner for them because already some judgments had come into play. And when judgment gets in your way, everything becomes over-thought. Considered. And what to me makes for creativity - which is spontaneity - goes down the drain.

Again quoting Arianna - failure isn't the opposite of success. But one step on the way to success. Fear, Arianna told us she once conveyed to Stephen Colbert, was an obnoxious roommate who took over her house if she let it. He asked her if he could crash there.

Everyone feels it. Before I get on a plane, before I give a reading or a talk, before I sit down to write, there it is, my obnoxious roommate. But I can't let him get in the way of what I want to do. I make the journey. I face the audience. I shut the door. I sit down. And I get back to work.

Arianna said that someone should event a GPS for the soul. Finding the way, the thread back into ourselves. Because it is only in making that connection that we can really be free.

Which might just be the opposite of fear.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Hand Drawn Maps

Yesterday a package arrived. My dear student, Carina, sent me a birthday gift. A volume of hand drawn maps, published by the Hand Drawn Maps Association ( Well, I don't think Carina knew this, but I have long been interested in hand drawn maps - as I am in diaries and journals and anything where we reveal a bit of ourselves, a kind of road map to our inner selves.

In fact just ending today is the wonderful maps of diaries at the Morgan Library. I went to this exhibit several times. I just loved to read Nathaniel Hawthorne's first scribble about an idea of an adultrous woman with the letter A pinned to her dress. Or Tennessee Williams, filled with fear and doubts, even as both Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were being performed on Broadway.

I love the inner workings of the artists or the travelers mind. Where are we going? How will we get there? Personally I hate GPS. I never want to actually know, let alone have someone tell me, how to get somewhere. I'd rather get lost a thousand times than let someone, or some thing, show me the way.

We don't learn by other people maps. We only learn from our own.

A few years ago I had a dream. I dreamt that I could fly all over the world. And I could never get lost. Because my belly button provided navigational redial. All I had to do was push it and it would enable me to fly home.

I feel that in many ways the artist and the traveler are both dreamers. We fly through the world either literally or through the imagination. Yet somehow we know how to get home.

When my cousin, Marianne, and I were small, we spoke in a language of our own. We had a kind of place too that we vaguely referred to as Ishkabibel. A few years ago for her birthday I drew her the map as I saw it. My grandmother's old metal elephant that served as a doorstopper, the narrow confines of the world we traveled in from Chicago where she lived to the suburbs where she came to visit me. The language we spoke (Burble), the unknown, unchartered territories.

This was the only map I knew - or needed - for a very long time.