Friday, October 19, 2007

Time and Again

If ever there was one who lived in the space between rock and not rock, it is the poet T.S. Eliot. Hold a rock in your hand and consider this, from The Four Quartets. The cycle begins:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

* * *
Only in a world of speculation.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden

Rocks are emissaries from the time that might have been and the time that is yet to be. They predate me by millions, even billions, of years and they will continue to exist long after the body that contains me has dissolved back into the earth, perhaps to be incorporated into a rock. The more I am able to let go my own whirring, and most unrocklike thoughts, the more the rock can ground me both in time and the body, in earthiness. It is hard for me to think in geological time, but with a rock in the palm of my hand and my breathing slow, I am empowered to try.

I learn that each rock, like each person, is a miniature version of a much larger story. Were I a geologist, I could tell you things about the era in which this rock was formed, what minerals it contained, where it was likely to have arisen. It helps me to discern the big picture within the small, and this is why rock work is helpful, not only in clearing the mind for prayer, but in approaching a work of art.

Rocks are the inner work of the earth, just as art is the inner work of culture, just as dreams that come to me by night are the inner work of me. And just as earth, mineral, pigment shape the world that I see, so do my dreams shape the stories, the images and the expectations I will bring to my seeing.

Each work of art, like each rock, holds within it a link to all. It has taken me a lifetime to be able to see this. I’m not sure I would even have tried, had “Vertumnus and Pomona” not frustrated my expectations so shockingly when I was young in much the same way that my inability to concentrate upon a rock for ten minutes frustrated the image of my own insightfulness when I grew older. To pay attention to ones random thoughts is to discover how fleeting they really are, how pointless much of the time, like the mayfly that rises above the waters and is nearly swallowed by the trout, like little Pomona, who allowed herself to be seduced by the blandishments of a cross-dresser.

My own confusion made me more than grateful for my friend Amanda. During my years at the museum, Amanda was my rock. The first thing she told me was to relax. High culture, she hinted, might be the last refuge of scoundrels and profundity a smoke screen thrown up by the terminally shallow. Amanda had the kind of confidence that comes naturally to the well born and she was a born popularizer.

Amanda was about ten years older than my mother. She had grown up in Piedmont, an elegant two mile square enclave surrounded entirely by a rather rougher Oakland. Piedmont people were sheltered, rich, beautiful and subject to no standards but their own. High culture, she said, was always about impressing somebody else, which was exactly what the Rococo did to perfection. Just look at those soft thighs and sensuous silks. Amanda knew all about this, of course. She had eloped to Tahoe during her freshman year at Cal, which was quite a wild thing to do, but as she said, “In those days, if you wanted to do it, you had to get married first.” By the time I met her, she and the Beast, as she affectionately called her husband, had raised three children and were settling into a comfortable old age. They inhabited an apartment on the Marina in San Francisco which, like my aunt’s well bred house, found its grace in elegant and careful understatement, but if my aunt’s two acres in the woods of Marin County were like a Russian estate in microcosm, Amanda’s apartment in the Marina was urban and cosmopolitan. It was Amanda who brought back court gossip from Washington and coined that immortal phrase about Boucher and his age, “This was when the gods came down from the heavens and into the boudoir.” In Amanda’s mind, the boudoir was the defining room of the entire eighteenth century, because the eighteenth century was all about love. She had never had to worry about starving peasants, and she did not.

Amanda’s salon gave me a new appreciation of Boucher’s delicious paganism. Not only had the gods come down from the heavens, they had, for the moment at least, vanquished a world which had come to take itself far too seriously. The seventeenth century had nearly been crushed under the weight of its seriousness. Invoking the absolute rightness of their doctrines and seeking to cleanse and purify all dissent in rivers of blood, men thundered and fought in the name of God. Reformation, counter-Reformation, Inquisition, death in the name of our crucified Lord, total war on a scale that would not be seen for centuries. And then it ended. To have awakened in a townhouse in Paris in 1721 was something fresh and beautiful, something that had never before been tried, life not as obedience to God, but in cultivating the very best of what it meant to be human. There were ruins lying around, but the passion and the darkness were over. The killing was done. Europe had lost its taste for cathedrals, for the grand gesture, the sweeping tides of Empire and Inquisition. When the sun rose upon the eighteenth century, it lit up the pastel walls of private town houses, the hôtels of Paris. It was a life infused by Rene Descartes’ simple mantra, “I think, therefore I am,” life wedded to its own ideas and mathematical elegance. This was a world hosted by brilliant women, because brilliant women have always presided over the house cultures at the beginning of things, be they the early caves of the goddess, or the early house churches of the Christian movement, or the salons in which the Age of Enlightenment saw the break of its day.

In the early 18th century, with the power of religion seemingly crushed into submission, human beings were given permission to reinvent the world. Women built beautiful rooms in which to wrench the mysteries of life away from the vengeful and vindictive heavens. Women of genius made it possible for men of science and philosophes to reimagine human life, not as the fallen creation of God, but something positive, rational, understandable on a human scale. It was giddy and fun. Anything was possible.

Nor were these women the sweet and gentle girls that men always imagine come to welcome them home from the wars, these women were like Penelope, made strong during the years alone in Ithaka, educated and very canny. While the men had dismembered one another with swords, smashed one another with canons and used the very unsubtle machinations of the torture chamber to overpower their enemies, the women had stayed home, weaving and unraveling the tapestries of time, the shroud with which they would bury their fathers, the wombs from which they would birth the new. There is much subtlety and truth to be found in this.

I still did not love “Vertumnus and Pomona”, but Amanda made a very sweet case for their very feminine world.

Monday, October 8, 2007

A Brief Thought Exercise

As my acquaintance Anne said, “Academics are like psychedelic drugs. They force you to see patterns where there are none.”

I invite you now to do a short centering exercise. I will assure you before you even start that completing this exercise is all but impossible, so do not be worried when you fail. Failing at the task is part of the wonderful mystery of performing it. We are accustomed to avoid failure at all costs rather than accepting its gifts. Failure is a gift. I will say more about this later.

I encountered this exercise during a healing prayer retreat, not with a seventies guru, but with a kindly retired UCC minister and one time friend of my aunt. I spent a beautiful week amid redwoods, fields and the Navarre River in Sonoma County failing at this exercise and I loved it so much that I have since taught it to hundreds of people.

You need only three simple things to complete it: a rock, a clock and a quiet place to sit. The point is to look at the rock for 10 minutes and think of nothing but the rock as a rock. You may look at it from any angle. You may turn it in your hands and examine it closely. You may even close your eyes and savor its textures. But you cannot turn it into anything but that which it already is: a rock.

To prepare for the exercise, it helps to settle onself in the quiet place and take a few deep breaths. If possible, say some comforting and simple words to banish any thoughts that may be troubling you. Acknowledge them and let them go. The same with any noises that may be drifting through the window: the mockingbird under the eaves, the crows that call out from the tree next door, the swish of cars moving up and down the street, that baby across the street who is always having tantrums. Acknowledge them and let them go.

If your clock has an alarm, set it for ten minutes hence.

Now focus all your concentration upon the rock.

When your ten minutes are up, reflect on what you saw.

That is all.


I cannot look at a rock for ten minutes without telling a story. For me, rocks turn into narrative, the universe in microcosm. I have a piece of charcoal colored granite veined with quartz which always turns into pictograms which in turn takes me into the desert and causes me to ponder lost ceremonies. I have a second piece of granite that when I hold it just so, a wolf’s head emerges from its top and at the bottom I can just barely make out a den of puppies. This rock tells a cautionary tale. Long ago, a wolf mother was out hunting to feed her brood when a pair of cruel little boys came upon her innocent puppies. They began to tease and torment them. Hearing their cries from far away, the mother cried out to her mother earth who took pity upon them and turned them all to stone until humans should become a kinder race. And as it sits in my hand, I ponder whether I have learned the kindness to awaken them.

“It’s a rock, stupid,” I now say. “It is you who are making it into stories. It’s a rock.”

So the next time I do it, I pick up the dullest rock in my bowl. It is a very dull medium gray and smoothed at all its edges. There are no veins of color anywhere. It is an almost perfect ellipse, symmetrical, elegantly balanced in the palm of my hand, no edges or angles. I sit and breathe. Hardly two minutes pass before the rock begins to sparkle as if a night sky were emerging from its depths.

And God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.”

“No, it is not the imprint of the stars upon a stone left too long in the river. It’s a rock, stupid.”

The next day, I find a rock that is so dull that it defines dull. Of no particular shape and yellow brown in color, it is the kind of rock that escapes our notice at the side of the road, a dust crusted rock, a quarry chunk. Within two minutes I am seeing the history of the earth recapitulated in its tiny, even minuscule folds and pondering the mystery of the rejected one.

Human beings have an irresistible need to make patterns. Patterns aid us against the terrors of the unknown. Patterns are what give us all the best stories and theories and equations and fractals. My patterns are a window into my soul. But my patterns may or may not be true. They may be nothing more than habits, or assumptions or desires, or even denial. Patterns are just as good as hiding things as revealing them.

It is in this tension between rock and not rock that the truth is to be found.

Boucher and Me

Three years later, after a false start in graduate school – I was not meant to be an academic — and a happy remarriage, I found the first threads of my tale. It began when Jay and I were house sitting at my aunt’s house. My aunt and uncle lived in a house in the woods, nestled on two acres of California live oaks, black oaks, toyons, and madrones. A scarlet oak planted in the year that it was built shaded the front entrance, while hundreds of species of camellias, carefully grafted by my uncle, bloomed along its meandering paths. The air was bright with hawks, jays, woodpeckers, quail, and turkey vultures, while deer, squirrels, and foxes roamed the underbrush. A golden retriever lounged at the door.

My aunt and uncle were rich. Long before any of the rest of us, they had cable service and a Trinitron® color TV. And that was how, on a small estate in Marin County, Jay and I discovered Tolstoy. During the month my aunt and uncle spent the fall at their olive ranch near Oroville, we watched the BBC production of War and Peace and discovered imperial Russia.

My first husband, who had buzz-sawed almost the whole of the Russian nineteenth century in translation, had actively loathed Tolstoy, preferring the more phantasmagorical and violent world of Dostoevsky. But for me, Natasha Rostova embodied the passions and the sorrows of Russia in ways that Raskolnikov or Prince Myshkin never could. In high school, I had walked the hills with my poet friends and pondered the relationship between Art and Life. Nowhere did the two feel more seamlessly fused than in War and Peace which told the story of a young girl coming of age during a nation’s agony. Tolstoy wrote about great things. In Tolstoy’s world, a young girl’s heart could embody history, at least as long as she belonged only to herself. Once she married, she lost all this, and that, too, would become a part of my story.

By 1975, I needed the strange and spiritual specter of Russia as an antidote to the total lack of imagination that had seemingly gripped all California. Life had grown very confused. Even now, the 1970’s were the decade I wish had never happened. Although I had managed to insulate myself from its worst excesses by marriage to a very proper spouse, this did not mean that I did not hear about them. Excess was being bruited from the rooftops. Before AIDS ended the decade with tragedy, everyone was carrying on as if having promiscuous sex, far from being something we had in common with the lower animals, was a veritable act of genius. This was the decade of Erica Jong’s zipperless fuck, Cyra McFadden’s hot tubs and peacock feathers and the notorious key parties where professionals showed how hip they were by anesthetizing themselves with drugs and swapping wives. This was the me-decade.Therapy was a major growth industry.Psycho-babble was fast taking the place of conversation. Real Estate prices were beginning rise exponentially, and with them, an even more engorged sense of entitlement, the enlargement and projection of the self into a house.

Caught between Tolstoy on the one hand and a singles’ bar culture on the other, I opted for art over life. Two years later, after a stint as a California historian, I walked into the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and signed up to become a docent.

Of course there may have been better places to find the truth of art than a San Francisco museum dedicated to European Art. San Francisco in those days was an opera town, a Catholic town, a gay town, a sailboat town, not an art town. Our art museums were not like the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado, even the Art Institute or the Metropolitan which is to say, the keepers of a great national vision. San Francisco was built on a gold rush. It was a mercantile town, a banking town, a railroad town, a town that, in the words of one of its early social historians, “danced on the brink of the world.” (Which was one of the reasons I briefly considered following in my grandfather’s footsteps and exploring art by going into advertising.) Our art museums were built from more popular stuff than the great museums of Chicago and New York. This was all right. I was prepared to deal with second tier art. I was prepared to work with small tastes of great traditions. But I was not prepared for Francois Boucher.

And yet there it hung, all six feet high of it in a place of distinction at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor. Boucher’s gigantic mythological scene “Vertumnus and Pomona,” represented everything I had been running from. It was frivolous and fanciful, the whipped cream aesthetic of an aristocracy so self-absorbed that it could not even see the Revolution that was brewing before their very noses. I could not exactly ignore something this large. It did not allow me to remain comfortable with my fantasies of Natasha Rostova, either, as it reminded me that Russia, too, had overthrown its gentry. I suppose I could have said what the others said, that it was silly and fun and that it depicted a scene of seduction from Roman mythology and was a cartoon for a tapestry and do admire the virtuosity of the swirling flow of its drapery, except that I did not want to say that. That was too simple, too canned. What I wanted to say was that the painting troubled me deeply. It did not trouble me because I found it silly. I was a Californian and silly I could deal with. Rather, it troubled me because it hung in a museum. That meant that someone found it sufficiently beautiful and meaningful to put in a museum. It troubled me because real people had posed for it. It troubled me because poor people had been deprived of the means to live so that the rich could live this way.

Standing in front of this painting brought me face to face with the shallowness from which I had thought to flee. Thus, it was here that I had my first real experience of the disconnect between what we say about life and what life may really be. The parallels between this little scene of seduction, whatever its origin or intent, and the hot tub culture of California were too obvious to miss. But everyone missed them.

The American cultural narrative was about equality and democracy and opportunity for the underdog, not about aristocratic seduction. Never, never in a million years would Americans ever stoop to this.

Or so, in the art museum, they said.