Thursday, August 14, 2014

Spelunking Into Ourselves

Yesterday I went with a dear friend to see Audra McDonald in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill and when this amazing show ended my friend turned to me with tears in her eyes.  She said she could not bear the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s life.  And I told her that I could not believe the wonder of her gift.  It was an odd moment.  My friend riddled with sadness and me with admiration and, I’m not going to lie, even a tinge of jealousy. 

Don’t we all – well at least those of us who are artists - in some way want to dig that deeply, but the fact is how many of us can?  To me it is a little like spelunking.  I’ll only go so far and then the darkness, the narrowness makes me stop.  Fear takes over.  This is something I’ve puzzled over for most of my adult life.  There are moments when I have dipped that far down and it has terrified me. 

I recall many years ago seeing Equus on Broadway.  It was one of the first plays I saw when I came to New York and there was one line and one moment that has never left me.  The play, for those who may not know it, is about a boy who blinds six horses with a railroad spike.  Clearly the boy is insane and most of the play takes place in the asylum where he has been sent along with the fleeting images of the horror he has committed.  There is a moment when the psychiatrist says (and forgive me I do not recall the context), “I can cure him of his madness but I will take away his passion.”

Isn’t that the tightrope all artists are walking?  Between our madness and our passion.  It is a delicate balance, to say the least.  While Flaubert told us to be ordinary in our lives so that we may be wild in our imaginations at times I find it difficult to reconcile the two. 

It brings us back to the age-old question.  Do artists have to suffer?  What was it about Billie Holiday, Piaf, and most recently Robin Williams that made them so destructive?  I suppose I’m one of those who always go back to the mother.  That somewhere in our core we are shattered.  

On the other hand Billie Holiday had a loving relationship with her mother and in the play it seems to be the revoking of her cabaret card after she pleaded guilty to a felony she did not commit.  But Billie was already hooked on heroin so again who is to say.  Is it the art that makes us dig deeper until we have perhaps dug our own graves.  Or is it the art that is our rescuer and enables us to climb out of the holes of despair, at least for a time, in which we have found ourselves.

I don’t know.  I have my thoughts, but I cannot know for sure.  Once a read about a Harvard study that showed that creative people remember their childhoods as unhappy, even if they were not.

I still see my friend, her eyes welling with tears over the tragedy of Billie’s life.  And I feel myself in the audience in awe of her gift, and I think that the truth lies somewhere in between in a place few of us can ever really understand. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dreaming of San Sebastian and beyond...

Much to my dismay it is August in New York and I'm finding myself at home.  It seems that, for reasons I don't understand, I have no place to go. This year I've been to Thailand, Key West, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Mexico, Chicago,  Macau, Red Hook and yet somehow it isn't enough.  Why doesn't someone invite me somewhere?  Why do I do better in motion?  I always have.  And yet the artist needs to settle down.

This painting is of San Sebastian.  I did it last night while watching the news.  I'm not sure why I needed to listen to all the miseries of the world as I painted this serene setting, but for whatever reason I did.  San Sebastian is the closest I have come to a home that isn't my home.  And so I long for it.

So I've been reading Paul Nizan in French (something I haven't done - reading in French that is - since grad school).  Aden-Arabie.  And dreaming of the far away, the beyond, the elsewhere, the not here, the exotic, the Far East, the imaginary cities, imaginary landscapes, places I remember, places that are no longer what they once seemed to be.  My head is full of nostaglia which I believe is a form of denial.  As if some place else is better than here.

Isn't that what Elizabeth Bishop says in "Questions of Travel?"  One of my favorite poems that states the paradox of travel.  "Think of the long trip home.  Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?"
Or as my mother said when she put me aboard the SS France for my junior year abroad, "You take yourself with you."

My mother wasn't the world's wisest woman but that was a wise saying - one I carry with me wherever I go.

But for now I am going no where fast and so I am dreaming of other places.  Why can't I relish these final dog days of summer?  Why do they call them that anyway?  I think I remember that it doesn't really have to do with dogs.  Now I'm dreaming of Labor Day and the bustle of the fall, the busy-ness of it all, and soon I'll be yearning for the days when I found myself with little else to do except dream and paint images of places where I no longer am.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

What Gets Left Behind...

A few years ago Larry and I were heading to Paris for a week's vacation.  We hadn't been away in a while and I was feeling rather stuck, in need of change.  It was to be a working vacation - as many of ours are. I'd packed my clothes in a wheelie that we'd carry on. But the important things were in my black backpack. My journal, my paints and pencil kit, the book I planned to read (IQ84, I believe), our camera, my meds, my makeup, and several manuscripts of stories and a novel I planned to work on in the cafes.  Just a week, but that was what the doctor ordered.

We loaded up the car and drove to Newark where we'd park in long term parking.  A van would pick us up there and take us to the terminal.  As we're unloading the trunk, I'm counting the bags.  And it takes a few moments for it to sink in.  Because my backpack with all my work and my journal and writing tools isn't in the car.  "Where's my backpack?" I asked Larry, my voice trembling.

"I thought you took it?"

"I thought you were loading up the car."

So began our sinking argument that would travel across the ocean with us.  He said he was packing the car; I thought he'd see my backpack and put it in.  We struggled for a solution.

Did we have time to go home? Could we order a car that would go to our house and our tenant could give it to the driver who would bring it to the airport?  All kinds of options were considered and discarded.  A car did pick up the backpack but got stuck in tunnel traffic.  And so I was going to be flying without any of the tools of my trade into a great unknown and in a very bad mood.

At Larry's suggestion we went into a bookstore at Newark.  I bought something I thought I might read.  I don't remember what it was at the time.  And then Larry pointed out that they did have small journals and I could buy some pens.  "It's something," he said.

To me it was nothing.  I wanted my journal.  The one I'd been working in.  The one that contained all my notes for the stories I would soon be writing.  Still I bought it, assuming all that would be in would be my venom.

We barely spoke on the flight.  Upon arriving we went to a pharmacy where I began the tedious job of reconstructing what medications I needed, what I could get over the counter, what my doctor in the US had to fax in a prescription for.  All this before we even got to our apartment.

At last we went to the apartment.  It was small but cozy right in the Marais.   We were exhausted and though normally we'd try and stay awake to fight the jet lag instead we tumbled into bed, waking just at dusk.  "Come on," Larry said, urging me out of my anger and lethargy.  "let's take a walk."  As is often the case with my husband he had an ulterior motive. He recalled the store on the Boulevard San Michele that sold art supplies and ever so gently he steered me in that direction.

I had my little journal with me in my pocket, though I had yet to write a word.  Normally I write on the flight, but not on this one.  Before nightfall I found myself in the store where I bought a small watercolor kit, a few pens, a glue stick.  Then we wandered over to a cafe where we drank several glasses of wine.

The next day we woke to the sun shining.  I pulled my little collection of supplies together and off we went, heading no where in particular.  We bought some coffee and croissants and plunked ourselves down on a spot near the Seine.  Beside us an elderly couple were making out.  A child played with a ball.  An accordian player got on a loop of romantic Parisian songs.  It wasn't long before a Japanese bride and groom appeared.  She wore a bright fuscia gown with black fishnet stockings and a black veil and he was in white sharkskin with an odd shaggy dog hairdo.  Their photographer crossed paths with three guys who told us that they were shooting a music video for Julien Clerc. A green balloon floated by.  Somehow the bride and groom ended up in the music video.  We wandered over to la Flore de Ile for ice cream.

It was late when we staggered back to our little apartment where we ate olives, grilled toast with goat cheese and smoked salmon and sipped Bordeaux.  Why we hadn't killed one another I didn't know but life was starting to feel good again.

Over the next week I did none of the things I'd planned.  I worked on none of the stories, or the novel.  I didn't continue my journal.  Instead I started something new.  A small Paris Journal.  In time I came to love its size and compactness.  The pages absorbed color well.  And I could do what I truly love doing best. Sitting in cafes and bar, scribbling, drawing, painting.

I found myself oddly unencumbered.  No enormous tomes to read, no work staring me in the face.  It was as if leaving that heavy bag behind enabled me to travel light in so many ways and that was what the journey should have been about from the start.