Memory (and loss)

I had a busy day in New York today with four museums, a three-mile walk, two plays, and one friend.  No partridges or pear trees, but easily 100,000 tourists.

The most memorable painting was Velazquez’s Old Woman Cooking Eggs at the Frick.  We don’t see too much Velazquez here in the U.S., so make a point to see it while it’s visiting from Scotland.  You’ll also get to see a luscious Sargent I’ve only seen in the books.  You could eat it with a spoon.  Both brought back the pleasures of study, as another gallery visitor and I talked about Foucault’s essay on Velazquez and Las Meninas.  Ah, the good ol’ days.




Piwyac, the Vernal Fall, 300 Feet, Yosemite

The theme of memory, and it’s concomitant idea–loss–started to tie my disparate day together.  At the Met, Carleton Watkins‘ remarkable 1861 and 1865 albumen prints capture a Yosemite that really only exists in memory now.  Imagine carrying huge glass plate negatives on the backs of his dozen mules to reach the vantage points he made famous.  And those silken photographs are almost other-worldly beautiful.

While Annie Liebowitz is known for her evocative photographic portraits, she too has made landscape prints, now at New York Historical.  These are basically memory pieces, of places that are significant to her.  But her printing manipulation left me cold in a way her portraits never do.  Even as she may be commenting on the tendency of memory to exaggerate, the over-saturation of color feels unnecessary and inauthentic.

My favorite image from the show; Niagara Falls, 2009

Not so the deeply touching, wrenching really, performance of xx, the mother in The Oldest Boy, a play by Sarah Ruhl in the intimate Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center.  Intimacy is important, as we enter into the sweet, mystical storytelling complete with Buddhist monks, chants, and Chinese Opera dancers.  The beautiful staging opens up from a living room to Dharamsala in India, the refuge of Tibetans.
James Saito, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jon Norman Schneider

What if your child were a reincarnated Lama?  This mother, a philosopher of religions and student of literature, suffers the loss of her teacher, as does one of the Lamas.  His teacher has been reborn as her son, passing remarkable tests of memory across lives, as a three year old.

At times, the writing is a bit pedantic.  Religion is easy until it becomes inconvenient.  We want our able-bodied mom to take care of our children, until she’s not, and then we put her in a home.  Americans  always want choice and to have it our way.  The irony of using “attachment parenting” when Buddhists believe in non-attachment.

Still witnessing the raw-emotional process of this mother, played by Celia Kennan-Bolger,  letting go of her child moved me more than any theater I’ve seen in an age.  It was tender and genuine.  Beautiful and old fashioned in a way you wouldn’t expect of Ruhl.

The poetry of the set

As are the 40 years worth of annual photographs of the four Brown sisters, taken by Nicholas Nixon, the whole series now on view at MOMA.  Hot tip!  You don’t have to stand in the horrible lines, pay the highway robbery entrance fee, or tolerate the beast of a crowd for Matisse’s cut-outs.  These gems are in the lobby–granted probably the most challenging place imaginable for a meditation, I bet even for a monk.


But do.  Meditate.  Watch these girls grow up, face life (and the camera) or not, lean for support, stand defiant…and survive.  Poignant, real, memories made tangible.  You may even feel a kind of loss as you let them go.  They are women you want in your life.

The Brown sisters, in 2014.



Buddha’s Hand

This time of year makes me think about abundance and want.  Thanksgiving, to be thankful for bounty.  Today, the Boy Scout’s collected canned and packaged goods for the local food bank.  Creative Arts Workshop had their annual Bowl-a-thon, where they sell hand made bowls made by students and faculty, filled with homemade soup, proceeds going to the Community Soup Kitchen.

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Here are the bowls I bought, both by the same artist.



















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Then there was the line around the corner at the Apple Store, waiting for the new iPhone 6, a month after its introduction.  And me at Whole Foods, spending needlessly on a Buddha’s Hand at a wasteful $3.99 per pound–the excess of a fruit I won’t eat, but does fill the room with a divine lemon scent.

So I acknowledge the contradictions in me.  I spend $10 on a temporary decoration  and deliver meals-on-wheels on Thanksgiving.  For someone who doesn’t eat turkey, chaffeuring hot meals will no doubt fill the car with smells I won’t love.  Maybe I’ll put the Buddha’s Hand in the car, too.  A good metaphor to remind me of what’s really important.

Hope your Thanksgiving is full of gratitude, good smells, and Buddha’s Hand, in all its forms.


Shakespearean Take on the Civil War

The way the American Civil War forced choices about identity fascinates me.  Suzan-Lori Parks takes this on through her particular lens with her three-act “Father Comes  Home From the Wars.”

The play follows the choices made by Hero, a slave who serves his ‘boss-master’ fighting in the war.  The first part shows him wrestling against his conscience, amidst his slave comrades, lover/wife, and ‘father’.  With a Hamlet-like indecision, it takes other’s actions to get him to move forward.

Parks is referencing the hero’s journey, too, particularly Homer’s “Odyssey.”  Hero even takes the name Ulysses later in the play, the Roman name for Odysseus, as well as the Union general, and another slave is named Homer.

But it’s the Shakespearean ties that intrigue me.  The second act features a Shakespearean soliloquy by the boss-master that is as touching as it is surprising, as well as unveiling the surprise identity of their Union soldier captive.

Hero continues a motif of trying on clothes to try on new identities.  Still, he can’t  imagine a future in which his value isn’t expressed monetarily.  His choice at the end of the second part is disappointing, but completely in character.

By the third act, the tone changes dramatically, with a Greek chorus of runaway slaves, or maybe they’re more like the three witches of the Scottish play.  And Hero’s dog makes an appearance as a truth-telling Fool.  While the other characters change and let go, adjusting to shifting circumstances, Hero plays out the same drama of loyalty versus his true identity.  He admits to trading his “soul” for values he seems to have no choice in enacting.

Parks has made a Shakespearean play about the greatest tragedy in the American experience, perhaps even greater than the annihilation of Indian cultures, although with much the same results.  Some of the allusions are heavy-handed, such as the use of contemporary slang and dress, notably in the third part.  I think her audience gets the relevance and crippling legacy of slavery today, without crippling not only one, but two of her characters.  Still I can’t imagine the plot without the repercussions of the physical wounds of these characters.

In part two, the characters debate which wounds are worse.  Hero says he would choose his legs, while the Yankee wounded in the leg says he now has to choose his arms.  The specious choice of which body parts are best to preserve closes the play as Hero says his hands are now his own.

But are they?  His self-deception makes him a tragic victim, much like his Shakespearean namesake.  She as a passive victim is rescued.  This Hero is neither heroic nor saved.  It’s a sad business that Parks elevates and elucidates for the ages.


November brings us Tellabration!–the celebration of storytelling that’s now worldwide.  New Haven is hosting all types of storytelling events over the next couple of weeks.  Tonight, Julie and I caught one with 3 storytellers, each with a distinct style and mode of storytelling.

Jennifer Munro, an English teller, told a sweet, country tale about what happens when a woman learns to read.  Historical narratives fuel the stories of Carol Birch, tonight about Harlan County, Kentucky miners unionizing and how their powerful anthem “Which Side Are You On?” came to be.

Motoko‘s stories of Japanese culture appealed to me the most.  I particularly loved the story of Mr. Stingy who apprenticed himself to Master Miser.

Just a tidbit?  Well, okay.  Mr. Stingy was too cheap to buy fried fish to go with his white rice.  But he loved to sit outside the restaurant that made the 2014-11-12 19.59.21 fried fish eating his white rice, because the smell was so wonderful.  After all, he told the shop owner, everyone knows smell is important to food tasting good.  The restauranteur insisted he be paid, as the delicious smell had value2014-11-12 19.59.55.

Master Miser said certainly he would pay.  He counted out the number of coins, but instead of handing them to the fish chef, he placed them in a bag and jingled it.  After all, he told the man (mentoring Mr. Stingy), just as the smell of fried fish has value, so does the sound of money.

Her story reminded me of the Yiddish folktales about Chelm, the village of fools.  I love stories that make fun of human foibles.  How else are we to learn to laugh at ourselves?

So for a laugh or a song or a tear, go hear a story this month, and then tell me your favorites.

Quaint Idyll

Just before our first “arctic blast” of the season, we ventured up hills, down dales, and around bends into central Connecticut.  There, we stepped back a century and a half for a wagon ride around Lake  Hayward.  Connecticut is known for its picture-postcard lakes, and this was my first chance to spend time by one.

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Motors (as on boats and jet skis) are prohibited on this lake, so our ride was a placid one.  Plus horses have the right of way, so cars pulled over, often on quite narrow, one lane roads.  Nice.   Nice people, nice place, nice day.  Quite different from how it must have been when a rubber mill, not cottages, dominated the banks of the lake.

2014-11-08 14.01.11The work horses pulling our ten-person wagon were Norwegian Fjords–beautiful dun-colored, stout workers, with distinctive markings.  Can you make out the the beige mane with its black-striped center?  That stripe continues down the horse’s back and into the center of the tail.  Like an artist carefully drew a very straight, black line dividing a tan field.

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Billy and Bobby are brothers, one year apart in age, who work well together, nodding and bobbing their heads, nuzzling each other, as if talking.  After all, they clearly knew the way, so didn’t have to concentrate that hard.

They didn’t seem to be working hard either, taking the up-hills at a perky trot.  Turns out, our driver explained, that they actually push the wagon, via a collar belted across their chests, making their load easier than if they had to pull it.  Physics at work.  I also always wondered why carriage horses wear blinders.  Turns out, the blinders keep horses from seeing the wagon behind them, which would continually startle these ‘flight’ animals with wide peripheral vision.

2014-11-08 15.06.16Along for the ride was Petey, a tiny rescue dog, who looked very much like Toto.  Petey has settled into life at Allegra Farm, even wanting to pitch in and work.  He’s been known to grab the lead rope of the work horses, and they are just fine with it, happily following along.

As cooperative and pliant as they seem, Norwegian Fjords are apparently feisty and have a bit of an attitude.  One time, Billy objected to a farrier (aka the blacksmith) who accidentally slipped while fitting the horse with a new shoe.  In a huff, Billy chased him up the barn stairs.  Plus these horses have a long memory.  So don’t get on their bad side!

We certainly didn’t.  Prepared with apples and carrots, Billy and Bobby got their post-ride rewards.  And for us, the rewards came with the crisp fall air, picturesque scenery, and a slowed-down way to enjoy both.  Good fellowship and residual autumn colors only added to this quaint idyll of a day.

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A Work Horse's Day Off

A Work Horse’s Day Off