A Brand New World

Transparency0002

Photo by John Simmons, 1975

I.

“This is how I feel right now/Obsolete manuscript/ No one reads and no one needs Pages lost, incomplete/ No one knows what it means/ Minds grow dark, so suddenly…
Useless part/ This useless heart/ Useless art/ What am I? Why I am I/ Incomplete?/ Obsolete
This is how it feels right now/ Obsolete manuscript/ No one reads, no one needs/ Useless part/ This useless heart/ Useless art . . .” – From the song “Obsolete” by Regina Spektor from her latest album, Remember Us to Life
“‘The Fire Next Time’ was not only for me the story of an elder who’s trying to teach a younger nephew . . . the facts of life. What I probably got from that is the notion of different perspective, that . . . it was legitimate to see the world totally differently than the dominant way . . . which is the Western dominant way of seeing the rest of the world . . . whether it’s Europe or North America . . . there is always this incredible sense of . . . we are the world, we are the center of the world. And we see the rest of the world from that center. . . And [James] Baldwin helped me understand that this was a political standpoint and that we were legitimate to question that and to see ourself as as well the center of the world or at least as important or as valuable . . . to have a different perspective on that . . . that’s why I always said what I learned from Baldwin is this way of questioning something that might seem solid – nothing is solid – and this sort of agility – of mental agility and intellectual agility to question everything.” – Raoul Peck, filmmaker, in an interview on Fresh Air about his Oscar nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.

There are rare occasions in life when we realize that what we’ve told ourselves about the world, the lens we’ve used to define “our world,” has become inadequate, has become too narrow. An epiphany, or an event shakes us out of our version of reality, and concepts that relate to our previous way of thinking feel empty and are no longer relevant, or what we might say about those things. Reading, writing or speaking about various topics, especially the more superficial ones, becomes meaningless, even great works of literature suddenly lose their luster temporarily, unless they are able to bridge their relevance in this new world and if not, have the potential to become uninteresting because we are in a new version of reality we must study very closely as though we are cramming. I’ve experienced this three times in my life.

In 1996 I went to Burning Man in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, normally home to horned lizards, kit foxes, badgers, and rattlesnakes, all of which retreated from the chaos and crowds during that eccentric weekend in the wilderness. I was nineteen.

Silver CDs dangled on a string that reflected the burning rays of the sun, a brown motorized couch moved across the desert earth; there were raves under blackened skies, naked mud baths under oppressively hot sun; there was a drag queen circus show, and a forty foot high wood burning man sculpture with long legs and little other defining features.

In this world a man could have breasts and walk around in a tutu with no shirt on – and she did, a man could walk around naked wearing nothing but a cock ring – and he did, a woman could wear nothing but black leather thigh high boots – and she did; in this world clothes were unnecessary or costumes, and making love out of the shadows would probably be condoned.

After a trek through the barren, parched landscape to explore the novel terrain and human beings, I lay alone, to get away from it all, against the steely gray, cracked earth without a shirt on in very short blue jean cutoff shorts that frayed at the ends, my hair plaited into seven braids. I closed my eyes, my knees pointed upward, and I felt like I was on another planet.

I traveled to Burning Man with a group of poets. The purpose of the trip, and collective pursuit, was to create a “poetry tent,” a place for readings amidst the bands, installations, sculptures and noise.

Back then, I wrote politically and sexually charged performance poetry with feminist and social justice undertones, and I read a couple one night in that poetry tent, but realized immediately, every poem I had ever written had become obsolete/ irrelevant. The subjects of my poems didn’t exist here, in this Dionysian utopia, it was beyond the restrictions and laws our society imposed upon us. As I read aloud, the words felt vacuous and I found myself thinking: who am I preaching to? Who is this choir? And I realized then that it was possible for an environment to be created in which the world as I knew it was gone, or that reality could quickly become something different than I thought it was – even if it was only for a weekend.

On the final night of Burning Man, almost every physical sculpture was lit on fire, or so it seemed, everything ablaze and the smoke and carbon made breathing uncomfortable that final night, it perfumed my hair with bitter flecks and left me with an apocalyptic feeling of emptiness – my old poems metaphorically burning along with everything else.

Something similar happened to me when I went to Nepal in 1998 – the foundation of how I saw reality/ the world shifted. The myth of Western society as center stage dissolved. Amidst the Tibetan monks chanting and ritual instruments emanating from nearby monasteries every morning, the kangling horns and tingsha cymbals, and the prostrating maroon clothed monks with toned arms circumambulating Boudha Stupa, I witnessed the bloody carcass of a buffalo hanging at a nearby meat booth, a mother severely disabled walking on her knee bones (the rest of her leg missing) beside her toddler who gnawed on a piece of raw meat; I saw a pyre lit over a river, obscuring human remains, while family and friends, fully dressed and partially submersed in the water surrounded the body and sobbed; I made friends with homeless children between the ages of five and seven who slept in an ally like a pack of wolf pups, and lastly witnessed a woman wash her hair at dawn on a roof top by herself.

I watched her from a different rooftop and she didn’t see me. She washed her long black hair in a bucket as the sun came up, she whipped her hair down into the full bucket, and then flipped it back into a fast-moving waterfall, then combed through every shiny black wet strand of it until there was not a snarl. So then, that was it. I realized there is not one way to bathe, to wash one’s hair when the sun comes up, even “toilets” can be anything (in Nepal more often holes in the dirt with no toilet paper in sight.) I had lived mostly in Boudhanath for a month at that point and it hit me: there is no one way to do anything, there are millions of ways to exist, to live, function – existence is the epitome of multiplicity. I realized there is no one right way – to believe or be – from the grandiose to the minuscule gestures of life on earth.

II.

222

Photo by Doreen Simmons, 2011

“The center was not holding . . . It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of American in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hope and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not . . . I had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.” – Joan Didion from her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game/ if you are the healer it means I’m broken and lame . . .Vilified, crucified, in the human frame . . A million candles burning for the help that never came/You want it darker . . There’s a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame . . .They’re lining up the prisoners/ And the guards are taking aim/ I struggled with some demons/ They were middle class and tame/ I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim/ You want it darker . . .
– Leonard Cohen from his newest album, You Want it Darker released October 2016. He passed away November 8th, 2016, the day after the U.S. election.
“Leading up to the war, I doubted the value of anything but antiwar poetry. I thought all my nature poems were . . . Well, stupid. But the moment the antiwar movement failed and the bombings began, I knew how important poems about birds and trees and loneliness and sex and food and joy were. I knew those little poems were weapons in the war for human kindness.” – David Budbill in and interview with Diana S. McCall in The Sun, reprinted in the January 2017 edition.

The third time I experience a fissure in my perception of reality, a fissure in my perception of the world – it’s the fall of 2016. This time the country of my birth – the United States of America – has been twisted into an alternate reality of disconcerting fictional discourse and dissonance by the man elected president. What I always felt my fellow citizens and I were immune to – is no longer the case – we are like other countries now – the ones subject to control by a dictator-like figurehead.

On election night I realize immediately this is one of the most significant events in American history in my lifetime.

After a few hours of sleep, I get up on November 8th and feel like someone I love has died, or like I have made a grave mistake I cannot erase mixed with the worst hangover in history, even though I barely drank the night before.

I have a hard time getting the words out to my three-year-old son when he wakes, “Trump is our next president,” my voice breaks, the sun begins to rise. I have nothing else to say. Nothing else on my mind.

“Hilary didn’t win? I thought you said she was going to win,” he says concerned.

“No, she didn’t win . . . I‘m so sorry. . . I was wrong.”

“Trump is not nice,” my son says.

And then I count up in my mind that my son will be seven and a half in four years – which seems like an eternity – an eternity in which a text book narcissist and habitual liar could be president, a man whose commentary is sometimes inappropriate for children to hear; a man who says he doesn’t like the idea of heroes.

After observing my unwavering despondency throughout the day, my three-year-old later reassures me, “It’s okay that Trump’s going to be president,” sort of the way the Dalai Lama might say it, and something in me wants to be soothed by his words, that on some bigger bird’s-eye-level it will be okay, the way great catastrophes are okay, or okay in the sense of accepting such and such is reality, therefore, on some profound level, okay – the world goes on, things go on, humanity finds a way..

I find myself -alone – in couple’s counseling a day later. “Yesterday, my clients and I cried together all day,” the therapist says woefully with a peaceful smile. I realize this is one of those moments all Americans will remember, the way they remember where they were when JFK was shot or when the World Trade Center was hit.

At this moment I’m incapable of feeling that Jews, Muslims, Latinos and all people of color are safe in the United States (due to the promises made, hate speech used, and documentation about those now in the highest positions of government, and I can‘t shake it, my anxiety hard to quell, the proliferation of hate crimes across the country in the name of the man elected, not by the majority of Americans but by the Electoral College, is on the rise) and I’m not alone. In a conversation with Nick Hasted a few days after the election, published November 17th, in Independent, Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the graphic novels Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I and II says:

“I seriously worry all the time . . . It’s my nature. But here – eureka! – I’ve finally found something worth worrying about!. . . And I also can’t help but see parallels to the Thirties and Forties wherever they’re to be dug up, to a degree . . I see something similar to Hitler. . . in that it’s gone very fast to things that seem surreal to me, like Trump supporters shooting four civilians at a polling place in California – one of them died. And there’s the slide towards incivility . . . For the first time I got to see my name with three parentheses signs around it. I don’t think it was a secret that I’m Jewish, but they were making sure that the alt-right people would know that I was Jewish. That’s just something I saw a couple of days ago. ‘Oh, I see. OK, it’s a new day.’ And at this point we don’t care about refugees’ lives. They’re not white lives. So yeah, sure, I’m worried.”

“You can’t let your thoughts get out of control,” my therapist says, “you can’t guess what the future will bring, we just have to see what actually occurs and deal with each thing as it happens. Anxiousness causes a fight of flight response which makes it more difficult for your brain to react as rationally as it would in a calmer state. Put a photo of Trump on your meditation altar and send him thoughts of loving kindness,” she says with a snicker.

I think, yeah, yeah, sure, it will probably be worse than I can imagine, and there is a disconnect between she and I – I feel an urgency to put myself on the front lines (but I do not tell her) and I have a looming sense that I may have to sacrifice a lot, maybe everything, that my role as a mother may have to be secondary at times to this cause – it feels similar to the dread and existential crisis I might experience if I knew an asteroid were heading toward earth . . . my country as I once knew it is about to disappear, and suddenly none of the rules apply, and it’s as if all the other things I could write about – the subtle things – do not matter.

I know I’m going miss writing about the lush forests sometimes and seeing their every contour, and the river water gold hazel of my son’s eyes; I know I’m going to miss some of the beauty that’s all around me, all the time, because of the need to stay informed about what’s occurring and to vigilantly protest it, and there is a weight to this form of collective grief and political upheaval, a weight to consuming the details of the many events, rulings and their outcomes that go against everything I believe in, not to mention the dizzying array of obvious misinformation and propaganda that spews like a geyser daily.

I hesitantly confess to the therapist, knowing I will be reprimanded, that I read every article I can from every reputable journalistic newspaper and magazine I can in every spare minute of everyday. I read it all until my hands are blackened with ink, no not that, until I’m dizzy and can’t see straight because for the first time in my life I’m utterly addicted to reading everything on my iPhone, everything possible in the time allotted, every article, every blog post from every reputable news site I can. I sleep beside my phone, it’s the last thing I look at before sleep and the first thing I look at when I wake, and sometimes I pick that glowing rectangle back up at two in the morning so I don’t miss something, and in the in-between hours what I read seeps into my unconscious where I dream that I live in an annex where ominous voices can be heard below.

She says, pointedly, like an annoyed mother, “Why are you doing that! Don’t do that! Don’t read articles right before bed!” and also goes into a tangential diatribe about how great NPR is, a source I enjoy but don’t find sufficient as my sole news source at this time. When we discuss politics I can tell she hasn’t been filled in on several current stories I’ve read in the New York Times and Washington Post.

I nod politely as she continues to talk about the frontal cortex and the importance of calming the monkey mind as I contemplate whether it would be a good idea to start training to use firearms, or if my life as I once knew it is gone – the comfortable bliss of freedoms allowed in a true democracy, which we didn’t have to fight for only two days before.

A couple weeks later, my three-year-old runs around the front yard under 200 foot redwood trees, after four straight days of rain, yells on the top of his lungs over and over again, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Donald Trump has got to go!”

“Where did you learn this?” I ask him.

“From Eric in my class,” he says casually, giggling, with a contagious sparkle in his eyes as he looks directly into my eyes to make sure I see what he’s doing and acknowledge his sense of humor. After he receives my non-verbal wide-eyed queue and smile, he looks away quickly and carries on with the chant – so carefree – happy – entirely unburdened by the words he’s shouting – for him, it’s pure comedy, pure theater.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera, wrote, “The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”

And so here we are, closer to the earth, like so many before us, closer to the precipice of the shrinking polar ice caps, where we hang on a very fragile ledge of the unknown, in a brand new USA, a less democratic one, with a wannabe dictator regime I don’t have words for yet, or perhaps too many.

Everyday millions attempt to carve into this brand new world, for all of humanity, chip away at it like Rodin, forming “The Thinker” out of nothing, try to make something bright out of decay and repugnance. This is our clay, but it’s trapped like the bones of a prehistoric creature in tar pits. An anchor reaches out to save the sinking cargo, the sinking pieces of what once was our world and the rope slips but will not be released.

Advertisements

Snow Song Triptych

Snowy WheelbarrowNearly everything stopped for two days. There was silence. Vehicular traffic ceased which seemed to erase tensions built up from years of sound pollution and I walked in a foot and a half of snow and realized, rather guiltily, as though I had fractured fine china, that I had stepped on two snow angels a child had made earlier that morning.

A solo leaf, that managed to cling on until then, far past fall, gracefully somersaulted midair, and like a sporadic mouse skirted and scraped the very top layer of snow speaking a language where only sssssssshhhhhhhhhh was possible.

At times the wind picked up a handful of snow, turning it into a little glittery tornado swirling about, until each particle dissipated back into the whole where it was granted, once again, the gift of invisibility.

Interval

This is the first Key.

The sky: that expanse of gray with shading rendered to give it depth and dimensionality.

Then the sun daggers straight down like an arrow through the sheath, illuminating a minute circumference of the sea, for a brief second, before shielding itself again.

The tide rises toward us. The toddler’s footprints erased within the first few waves, as though we were never here.Footprints on the beach (2)

Yesterday, the beach felt like the end of world. There was a subdued quiet – so few people – and the sand and the water splayed out in such a cool muted palette like the contrast had been lightened to the extreme, a pale pastel, the water a ghostly turquoise and the sand a light gray to white gradation that began to fade until it disappeared.foam key

There were no waves, which caused the rhythm of time to stop, just a true silence except for the slightest ebb on the shore from the, barely there, subtle licks of gravity. No one worked or cleaned or hammered or used machinery, as was the custom in this region.

The purple flag on the pole indicated that dangerous marine life lurked, but no one was threatened or submersed in the waters of that flat mint julep sea.

Two pelicans flew in tandem above me, but even they seemed to know how to silence their wings during this obscure moment full of stillness and stops.

 

Meditations on Grief, Death and Senseless Acts of Violence

“Yellow crime tape hung on the wild rose . . . Death had left for me its imperishable mark on an ordinary corpse of trees in my front yard. Never again would I look out my kitchen window at that lone cedar on the prow of hickory forests in the same way as I had before. I would never be free of the memory of what happened there. But would a stranger, coming upon it, say a century later somehow sense the sad, lost secret of the place, the sanctity of this death-inflicted soil?” – Sally Mann, Hold Still

It is impossible to watch leaves fall to the ground, crudely or exquisitely, depending on my mood, without remembering my father’s broad tall frame doing the same, beginning to grow back, shrink down into something skeletal at this same time of year thirteen years ago.SubstandardFullSizeRender

Last week, I sat at the bar of a café and tried to finish the last chapter of Hold Still and came upon Sally Mann’s Body Farm photos, carcasses unabashedly decomposing buck naked against the earth. I closed the book abruptly so as not to disturb the patrons beside me at the café, seemingly on vacation, happily sipping their cheery cappuccinos with perfectly foamed leaves and hearts etched into the rich brown brew.

While attending the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, under the tutelage of Bhanu Kapil, I began studying the body and anatomy as part of a book of poems about the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For research purposes, I went to a public screening of Stan Brakhage’s The Art of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, a film which documents autopsies, to more intimately know the boundaries, textures and depths of the body.

After three days of labor and three hours of trying to push my son out of my body, my midwife asked my husband if he had heard about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. She knew his mother would be traveling from Boston for the birth and just saw the news on the t.v. screen, in the waiting room, while grabbing a cup of coffee. I lay there, on my back, focused, staring ahead as if into a void, as if I didn’t hear what she said, due to my commitment to let go and not engage in worldly matters, while simultaneously wishing silently to myself that a massive attack on human beings wasn’t brought up while trying with every muscle of my body to release a new life, full of flesh and blood and vitality, into the world; wishing I could remain ignorant about the malevolence and wretchedness of human beings, if only for this moment, to feel that I was birthing my son into a world of security and sanctity.

No other poems embody the pain of experiencing mass senseless acts of violence and death, or can be more grief-stricken than Paul Celan’s. He invented an entirely new language to speak of the surreality of genocide, as disjunctive as sudden death, and no one can touch it or recreate it. If we are lucky enough to never experience this sort of mass destruction, and may we all be, we can stand outside the poems and recite them, and step inside them, as if in a museum and just remain in awe of them and feel a shiver of ice down our spines at just the sight and bitter taste of them. Many even look skeletal on the page, but are like spirits speaking from the grave, like little prayers, recollections, from the voices of the dead. “Graze the debased coinage,/ the scale of my temporal bone.”

Place names, these place names will never be the same after a mass shooting – Columbine, New Town, they can never be separated from what happened there, but as Sally Mann asks, “Would a stranger, coming upon it, say a century later . . . sense the sad, lost, secret of the place . . .? New Town – where my aunt and uncle lived and raised their three children. Their house on the market at the time of the shooting. This would be their horrifying last memory, after so many happy years, in a place they called home.

Two years ago my mother-in-law lay in surgery at Bingham and Women‘s hospital, hooked to a machine that kept her breathing, her chest open, heart exposed like Catholicism’s iconography of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, light streaming out it (in my vision), a young meticulous surgeon, Dr. Davidson, weighing over the intricacies of her vital organ, bringing her enlarged heart fresh life, like an alchemist, turning what is silver into gold, performing the miracles of modern science, at once common place, routine, and, yet, extraordinary.

While my husband slept beside her at the hospital, as she recovered, we spoke briefly and intermittently. I asked, “Do you like the doctor . . . How old is he?”

“I really like the doctor,” he said without pause,”He’s young, Jewish, about our age.”

Less than a year after her surgery, there was a shooting at Bingham and Women’s hospital. A nondescript man, without an appointment, went into the waiting room of the Watkins Cardiovascular Clinic and asked repeatedly to speak with Dr. Davidson. When available, the doctor lead him to exam room number fifteen.

As my mother-in-law’s strength, endurance, and vitality only grew, her doctor’s life was taken from him suddenly, violently, unexpectedly and unrepentantly on an ordinary day  -his wife pregnant with their fourth child – an infant whose skin would never feel the warmth of her father’s flesh.

A few weeks ago, I could not get the image of two missing women, blithe lovers by all reports, twenty and twenty-two, out of my mind; their blood stained, bullet riddled car left visible, like an evil monument, partially submerged in the French Broad River, just a quarter mile from my home.

There was an investigation on my street in connection with their disappearance, caution tape strewn across the dead end road, where thick broken car glass, aquablue in the sunlight, was unapologetically strewn.

For many days after their disappearance, torrential rain fell causing the river to rise in a swiftly flowing murky current. I couldn’t bear to be near the river or to walk the path around my neighborhood

One day, while leaving the house at least twenty-vultures flew overhead. Everything seemed marked by an eerie bleakness.

The effect it had on me, I think, was made worse not only by the fact of its proximity to my home, and the utter senselessness of the brutal violence, and that these women resembled so many friends I’ve had over the years, but that for several weeks I had been reflecting deeply on the French Broad River, intimately thinking about its geology and history – the beginnings of a piece about one of the oldest rivers in the world whose vein, near my home, divides the central and west parts of the city.

One night, as I switched off the light to go to sleep, I took a sip of water in the dark. As I reached to set the glass back on the side table, a nightmarish image of their 1980s royal blue VW flashed in my mind, and the glass of water fell and cracked into thousands of shards beside me. I could do nothing but lay beside the ruins until sleep took me.

And while I grieved for these women who I never knew and would never know, as the stories and photos of them in the media started to mesh into the fabric of my internal thoughts, search parties dove into the depths of the French Broad River soon discovering them and pulling their young bodies from the weedy depths.

A week later, my mom called and said, “Something happened in France. Don’t listen to the news,” she warned, knowing I was already rattled.

I immediately texted my friends in Paris, want to make sure you two are safe and sound, thinking of you. As if the Atlantic didn’t separate us, in less than a minute they wrote back that they were safe and that the city was shut down. They were at their hotel suspended, stuck in a moment in history.

Bombs strapped on human bodies in public squares, the ultimate defilement of the sanctity of the body and humanity. A man shot during the November Paris attacks said something like, “When you see the destruction a single bullet does to the human body, it is devastating.” His phrase, a single bullet, struck me as incredibly poignant, during a time that a single bullet is so rarely reported.

Then more reports in the news this week, a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California… every few days another announcement. And another and another.peace 2

At a children’s music celebration the leader sings, “We feel that peace is coming, we feel that peace is coming, we feel that peace is coming for everyone.” I’m struck by the optimism and hope and all the contradictions brought out in the irony of this simple wishful prayer. My son later that afternoon sings it to me while smiling. Is there a more beautiful and impossible sentiment? But I so want this to be true for him, and for all children, not a fairy tale, not something that can never be.

Last night, while driving, my husband informed me that an acquaintance’s twenty-two year old son died a few days ago while kayaking in Ecuador. I felt a pang run through me. I hit my fist to my chest, primitively, and made a quiet guttural sigh.

In temple, later that night, the people in mourning stood for a moment amongst themselves before the rest of the congregation rose in solidarity beside them as the words Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, (Holy, Holy, Holy) slightly echoed into the vast space of the high, wood beamed, ceiling.P1130401

 

 

Nietzsche 101 for Toddlers

Karl Ove and NietzscheMy two-year-old saw The Portable Nietzsche beside my bed, which bares Nietzsche’s image on its cover, and asked, “This, Karl?” (referring to our previous conversations about writer Karl Ove Knausgaard). Not expecting the question, I laughed abruptly, “No,” I said, “This is Nietzsche.”

“Oooooh, Nietzsche,” he said as if he knew exactly who Nietzsche is, and now clearly recognized him, which made me laugh more.

So our first conversation about Nietzsche, it turns out, is when you are two, I think to myself.

He belted out the name, “Neeee-chuuuuh!” a few more times because this new recitation brought pleasure to his lips, mouth and vocal chords, but also because he could tell how much it amused me.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Ove Knausgaard: a resemblance?

Then I see what I had never noticed before, which my son in an instant must have recognized: on the book covers of The Portable Nietzsche and My Struggle: Book Two both men are photographed in black and white, both look with heads turned completely to the west with a determined, pensive gaze; both have their right arm lifted. Nietzsche rests his head on his hand, propped up on bent elbow like Rodin’s The Thinker; Karl Ove’s arm, and bent elbow, is lifted to bring a cigarette to his lips. Nietzsche has an impressive thick wooly mustache, and Karl Ove a modest beard. They both have tasseled hair because when you are a person who prioritizes, above all else, thinking and writing it will always take precedence over making sure each hair remains in place.

A couple weeks later we are traveling in Boulder, Colorado. I unpack my bags, set a couple books beside my bed, including My Struggle: Book Two of course.

Seeing this my son said, “Oh, Karl!” and then, “Where’s Nietzsche?”

“Nietzsche didn’t come with us to Colorado.”

“Oh, okay.”

And then uncontrollable joy comes over me and laughter that makes me rush to him, scoop him into my arms, squeeze him and kiss his luscious cheeks over and over again. A huge smile of confidence, half aware of his cleverness and how pleased I am with him, lights up his entire face.

Yes my dear, dear, boy, Nietzsche didn’t come with us to Colorado.

Exquisite Palimpsests

Palimpsest: Something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“Of course, I can imitate a line, but that is not what I want, and the real line emerges when it wants to.” –The Journals of Jean Cocteau

Exquisite Palimpsest 1

The palimpsests I encounter most, at the moment, are the ones my 21-month-old son and I create together.

His first experience making art begins with lines lightly scrawled from a waxy midnight blue Crayola crayon, a few little squiggles per page. He informs me that they are, “Snakes, snakes.” He often likes to say a word twice and the repetition gives the word an immediacy and urgency that elevates it to a level of vast importance.

On a walk, just the week before his first forays in art-making, we came across a small injured Garter snake in the middle of the path that winds through our neighborhood. For many days, after, he would reflect back on the snake, “Snake ow, Mama.” And I would say, “Yes, the snake had an ow.”

When I write the letters of the alphabet on a page he informs me that the letters C, O and D are clearly, “Moon, Mama.”

He now requests I draw a bus, roughly, ten times a day. On the same page he continues to draw and draw repetitively in thick strokes until the representational image has vanished under something resembling a Jackson Pollock, if Jackson Pollock would have taken to the medium of crayons and magic markers.

Exquisite Palimpsest 2

We take turns sometimes with a single broken blunt scrap of crayon, like old friends sharing a flask of whiskey. He draws for ten seconds, hands the crayon stub to me, I draw for ten seconds, hand the crayon stub back to him. And we go on this way for half an hour on a single artwork. This is our Surrealist experiment, our Exquisite Corpse, our exquisite palimpsest.

Exquisite Palimpsest 5

At nine months old, my son started saying, “This.” It was a way for him to direct me toward what he wanted, but it was also a way for him to ask me the name of a thing. He would point up a painting in our home by Cuban-American artist Humberto Benitez, of a crowd of women and men dancing and drumming, in the spirit of a Diego Rivera, primary colors flashing and say, “This?” and I would say, “Art,” and he would repeat the word, “Art, art,” two times. Soon he would just point up to the painting and say, “Art” and I would say, “Yes! That is art.”

I hope the word art will hold an evolving meaning for him; a word that over time will just continue to absorb complexity, a word and a thing allowed to dance between definitions, dangling in its own balance, in a contented state of flux, but with its roots still intact; a word that will expand to the point in which it will defy definition over the years.

I hope I am able to teach him that art is a sort of ingenious game of the imagination, sometimes playful and invigorating, and that there is a delicious elation that can arrive during the process of its creation.

As a child, my dad would often take us to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He would say, “Mara, look at this painting! The textures and layers!” and so on. The only color on the crusty expanse of canvas: white.

My mind expanded on these family excursions – electricity surged though me – I experienced joy, ecstasy, inspiration – all this at once. I was awake, really seeing and taking it all in because art truly lit up my father. He became a firework beacon of light that could not be contained on these outings, because this was Art, Art I tell you! (with a capital A) and it was brilliant and vital and invaluable and had to be mulled over and examined. These mind-altering masterpieces could not be touched with our hands, but we let our eyes be windows to the soul when we looked at them through eyes that were seeing as if for the first time.

Exquisite Palimpsest 3

My toddler son and I are making our first works of art together in quick succession. We scrawl lines, circles, spirals, As and Os, wheels and eyes and noses, floating faces and body parts, snakes and sand, dots and dashes, the sea and the sky and trees until it all becomes an abstract expanse, like desert sand in a slow but strong moving storm, the new grains cover the old ones, until the ones underneath are barely discernible; until not a square inch of blankness is left or it all become monochromatic -one- one thick expanse of desert with all the geometric shapes and bodies and balls and boxes you could identify underneath barely visible, an almost clean slate of solid color with little flashes of white – an exquisite palimpsest we made together.

Exquisite Palimpsest 5