Maps

globe

The pieces hang in museums and galleries like stars, hang there like they spontaneously appeared in their corporeal forms.  I understand much better that books do not get spat out fully formed.  For good or ill, I know that they come in blobs and spits and sprints and marathons.  I am an enthusiastic painter and drawer, and as in all my auxiliary artwork, I am sloppy and impatient and happy.

I went by today to look at a map-inspired show, and ate it up.  Paper and ink assemblages like Pollocks in 3-D, a world map of Jesus-alia, maps rendered in sophisticated embroidery and beads, ink drawings in a bracelet chain, all settled in the color of salmon (particularly useful to me, in a pink period).  The ink drawings were a little Japanese, and other map-ish drawings were clearly from Asian painting tradition.

The best part is getting to go inside a sphere that surrounds you in maps.  They are mustard-family images of places the United States has bombed, which is a downer, but I am such a fan of the installation, anything I can be inside of, crawl around in, right away I was wanting to build my own.  What I really want is my own ride, so the whole experience is controlled, and not just to make you feel like you’re flying through Hogwarts or floating through a city under pirate attack, but having some other more aesthetically or politically provocative experience.  Maybe someday.

You know those pieces, looking so nonchalant on the walls of museums, came in blurry and like grown-up teeth, pushing other things out, but then there is the miracle that they became something that works.  You know they left dirty fingers and glue smears and scraps of thread.

Review of the show:

http://www.trfineart.com/pdfs/reviews/0000/0389/Kansas_City_Star_Kemper_Map_as_Art.pdf

 

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Ladies

The day after the art opening, I liked Patti Smith.  I loved Smith’s book, Just Kids.  I read most of it on the beach in Corpus Christi, Texas, in between minor adventures (like meeting a guy with the most interesting accent of all time, India Indian crossed with Alabama).  My head was in crunched together, dirty 1970s New York City (dirtiness being one of my favorite things about New York, don’t get me wrong), and my bare feet dug in the sand, the water of the gulf, rather recently de-oiled, doing its usual push-pull job, and our umbrella boy (not Alabama, but he did exist) occasionally shifting the shade so that it covered me.

Why did I suddenly like Patti Smith’s music?  I have found her lyrics too sweet, and her voice too wavy.  I read her biography on Pandora, and it mentioned, along with the men she worked with, one additional bit of information: if they were her lovers.  Gee.  I didn’t care who she slept with, but you know, we can’t understand a woman unless we know if she is wholesome, frigid, or a slut.

I thought maybe I could be like Gertrude Stein (this was suggested to me).  Not, like, a bad dresser, or chunky, or a lesbian, but a bossy art boss with good taste.  I did a little research, and it turns out she grew up with money, and always had money.  So I can’t quite be that kind.  These patron types, they don’t have 40 hours of work a week to pay the bills, or, you know, “careers.”

I went back to some Stein, anyway, her wackiest writings.  I can hardly stand her insanity except that I like how it smooths my brain down because there’s nothing to snag on.  And I started The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, something I should have already read.  If I can distract myself from its two depressing notes (one: I did not live in Paris in the 1920s; two: I have no One who inspires and supports me and I couldn’t do without), then I’ll enjoy it.

I watched a documentary on a burlesque class.  It makes me angry that women have to take their clothes off to be in front of people and get attention.  I have a hard time getting past that.  I’ve always thought it was foolish to get naked in front of anyone who didn’t love you.  As a woman, your body is important to who you are, it is closer to your soul than a man’s is, and you have to protect it.  Yes, it’s women who photograph themselves and post it all over the internet so they can be seen, looking this way.  (I’ve done it myself.)  Is that troubling?  Is that cultural or natural?  Is that a disadvantage or an advantage?  Who knows.  Setting that aside for now.

At least, I have to protect my body.  It’s not modesty or shame.  Just protection.  In any bar, people making music are almost always men, and people taking their clothes off (or working scantily clad) are almost always women.  The generally thoroughly feminist members of my generation have retained this gender division.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s just that deep.

I enjoy being a girl, though.  I think women have more choices, more flexibility, at this moment in history.  I can be weak without being shamed.  I can make very little money and have that look idealistic, rather than impractical.  It hits me harder, the gender thing, when thinking about other arts.  In writing, I’ve got George Eliot, Annie Dillard, and everyone in between.  In teaching, women abound.  I only know of one woman who runs an art gallery.  I can’t think of any visual artists I love who are women.

Patti Smith used her body most like a man.  Or she didn’t play the game, or something.  Or she is just one of those people who were so rooted, so deep down rooted in where they came from, that other people don’t make her anything different.  I don’t know.  I don’t know much about her.  I just read her book and liked her music for a little while.

I had a friend take my picture on the beach, in my swimsuit. I liked the way I looked.  My brain was in good shape, although unfortunately it didn’t show in the photo.  It was so good, that spring, to undress and have your skin out in the air again.  It was nice to be looked at.  It was still snowy back home, up north.

Personification

We do this project.  The kids write about a problem they have overcome, creating a symbol to personify that problem so that they think of resolving the situation in a healthy way, in an assertive, active way.   So I go around the room to see what they are going to write about.  Deaths of grandparents. Depression.  Moving between many different households.  My house burned down.  Lost both my parents.  My mother’s boyfriend’s drinking.

Sometimes I know about the tragedy already.  Sometimes I don’t.  Today I found out one of my students both has a kid and has been shot.  “Both of those happened to you?” I asked, concerned the assignment had been misconstrued.

“Yeah.”

“Wow.  You’re tough.”  Kid is tough.  Has fought me hard on occasion, but eventually settled into my boundaries pretty well.  Now I see where that toughness came from.

It softens everyone in the room, the day when they write down their wounds.  It softens them as much as it softens me.

The next step is that they personify their issue.  Maybe it’s like spiders crawling all over your body.  Or a storm that just won’t pass.  A dark, winding cave.  Tigers chasing you.  And one of my favorites: a lawnmower that comes by over and over to cut you down.

After school today, a kid came in to drop off some make up work, and I asked how he was doing, what was up with him.  I was just being sociable.  He told me how he was doing, though, and it wasn’t good.

“Oh,” I said.  “Why don’t you sit down.”

Kid gushed like a spring river.  I had never had a personal conversation with this kid before.  I’m not the sort of person people usually tell their life stories to.  But boy, this kid had a lot to say.

Let’s say he had a zombie army that invaded his house, and they stretched his head and heart out so far it was overwhelmingly heavy.  He was in no danger, and there was nothing I needed to do about it.  He was just reeling.

I sent other kids out of the room when they came in to ask me something.  He didn’t seem to need privacy.  Our school is so small.  A lot of times people just put their business out there because it’s hardly worth the trouble to conceal it.

“The worst thing is, no one understands,” he said.

I certainly didn’t understand.  Zombies never invaded my house, and I never had my head and heart stretched out quite that way.

He kept going and going.  “I can’t talk about my feelings,” he said.  “I’m not that kind of person.  And there’s no one I can talk to.”

“Well, you’re talking to me,” I pointed out.

“But you’re Ms Schurman.  You like, just listen, and work around the problem, instead of trying to jump in, and you’ve been my teacher for a year, and you’ve helped me before.”

I really wasn’t sure I had helped him before, but no reason to mention that.  That was the least of my problems.  I was about to cry.  I was Ms Schurman?  What did that even mean?  School, that school, is the only place anyone calls me that.  I was Ms Schurman, sure, I guess.  I am when I’m in that building, and I am Ms Schurman with a stack of papers on a Saturday afternoon, and at a party when I tell people about my school so they know some city schools, and some city kids, are productive and happy and ambitious.

At the end of the year, I used to feel like I physically took off that name, that burden, but as time has gone on, it’s gotten less heavy.  It feels more like a part of me.

I asked him if he wanted me to tell his teachers he was going through some stuff, and he needed some leniency for a while.  He said yes.  He left.

I went to take my half-empty juice back to the fridge in the closet in the chemistry lab, and I stood there in the dark and teared up as much as I thought I could without looking like I had been crying when I came out.  I looked at the wood grain on the door of the mini fridge, and the unlit light bulb hanging down, and the dead sink, and I thought about my friend who had taken her breast pump in there when she returned to work after having a baby.  God knows what else people have done in that closet.  It’s an old building.

I remembered another time when a teenager said, “I know I can trust you.”  And I thought that those two compliments were two of the best I’d ever gotten.  I worked damn hard for those.

I listened to a lot that disturbed me, and I kept an open expression on my face when my stomach was cringing, and I bit my tongue and did not say a thousand things that came to mind, no matter how critical that information seemed.  What I know, what I’ve learned, is only occasionally, and only in tiny doses, useful to others.

And I know for sure that teenagers get tired of people always telling them how it is and what they should do, because I’m almost as touchy about being bossed around as they are.

Walking back to my classroom, I thought of one of my favorite quotes, from Fred Rogers, of the “Neighborhood”: “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”  That one makes me cry, too.

Family

Okay, Washington, DC is a political place.  Still, I was surprised when the woman next to me snapped.  “Those are for families,” the lady behind the desk said.  She meant a particular brochure.  I was picking up a map, and happened to witness the exchange.

“We’re a family,” Snappy responded.

“I mean, families with children,” Desk Lady amended smoothly.

“We don’t have children, but we’re a family,” Snappy said, her voice flat and hard against the other people, the marble, stomping away.  I smiled at Desk Lady.  Ah, a blast from the family values past, right there in the entryway of the National Gallery of Art, just around the corner from twenty Japanese paintings of bodhisattvas sitting on angry elephants and glowing snowslicks and luscious fish.

Recently I was traveling with my family, two fiftysomethings, one of them my biological parent, one my parent by marriage, four of their offspring, all old enough to get into a bar or sign a contract, and one significant other with no legal or blood tie to any of us.

You’d know we were a family because half of us have the same nose, two of us have the same build, sometimes a couple of us held hands or leaned on each other’s shoulders.  We took each other’s photos, and sometimes one of us paid for the others.  Under the stress of the trip, there were some exasperated tears, and at least once we argued and weren’t sure what we were really arguing about.  Maybe that’s the most obvious indicator that we are family.

It’s a great surprise to me that we’ve ended up this family where everyone is a grown-up.  When I was a kid, I thought all families are made up of kids, and that grown-ups without kids were selfish, immature, or maybe just too weird or pathetic to get married.

I remember looking through our church directory, photo after photo of families with their names printed underneath.  Occasionally you would see a solo photo, and I pitied that person.  All alone in the world!  What did she do wrong?  I’ve never had my picture taken for my church directory.  Not that  I made an effort to avoid it.  I already have to sit for a stupid school ID photo every year, sitting in front of that grey marble backdrop.  Once or twice, I’ve gotten a big envelope with wallet-sized copies of that photo.  I can imagine no life circumstance under which I would want to distribute such photos.

I’ve traveled with other groups– groups from church or from work.  For that piece of time, they are my people.  They’re the ones I look for in crowds, to see if they are okay, and if I am okay.  They’re the ones whose phone calls I’m waiting for, whose outfits I’m trying to remember the colors of so that I can spot them.  They’re the ones whose rhythms of language become what I expect, the ones I’m subconsciously adapting my stories for.  Much as I like to think of myself as independent and iconoclastic, I adopt some of their language and their habits.  With the drinkers, I drink, and with the goofier ones, I get weirder.  Whether I spend two days with them or two weeks, they are my people.

It’s always intrigued me, how humans shift those allegiances.  My tribe/not my tribe.  I imagine you might not notice someone who used to be dear to you.  You might not see someone, hear someone, someone your eyes and ears used to strain for.

My boyfriend got off the subway.  This was more than ten years ago.  He was next to me, and then he was across the tracks, on the platform, and then he was covered by the crowd, and then he was gone.  No one else meant anything to me, and he was gone in a way that amazed me.  It’s easy to imagine: you’re looking at a big crowd, but that’s not who you’re looking for, so that’s not who you see.

Aside: After I posted this, I realized I had included the same subway-leaving incident in two subsequent pieces, which means either it was a moment of great emotional significance (it didn’t seem big at the time), or my favorite example of a particular realization and I haven’t found a better one.  Take your pick.

Spirits

The mansion now seems as normal as the 1970s split level where I grew up.  Which is nuts.  That’s why I had to give all those tours, I guess. I started to worry I was like those New Yorkers who go through Grand Central’s great hall and don’t look up.  If you can’t maintain your awe, you’re dead.

The stars on that ceiling, the people swirling around the central kiosk like paisley teardrops, rounding and curving illogically back down the passages, across to platforms, to train tracks, up to Park or Vanderbilt Avenue, the huge windows, the warmest marble in the world—I never want to fail to be thrilled by it.  It helps not to live there, or commute through there.  But I have spent a lot of time there.  And regardless of your expose to beauty, it remains difficult to keep the heart propped open a touch at all times, to be alive while you are alive.

Saturday I presided over debauchery, and Sunday, I read the lessons for the congregation: a little chunk from Deuteronomy about Moses telling the people they’ll get a prophet.  The people, back in those books, are always asking for things that aren’t good for them, and The Lord is always like, Well, fine!  It’s a teenage period in God-human relations.  If you don’t bring the word to the people, God warns, He will smack you down dead.  It is pretty self-destructive to ignore your calling.  I don’t need a Mean-Dad-type God to tell me that.

The other lesson was Jesus calling out an unclean spirit.  These are always strange lessons for we Episcopalians, who believe in reasonable, polite behavior, not calling out, uncleanness, or spirits.  Saturday night, there was talk of spirits—mostly the ghost of Mr. Myers.  There were other spirits, too.  The box I found on an upstairs mantle, which had contained a bottle of Jameson, was empty.  I hadn’t had a drop of it, but that was my only sad find in the post-party mansion.  Overall, spirits drove out unclean spirits, for sure.

At two a.m., I was happy to note, as we checked each room and blew out all the dozens of candles, that everyone treated the mansion with reverence.  The toilet needed a flush.  There was one napkin that had soaked up a wine spill.  The gaggle of visitors who climbed the rickety ladder to the attic (an incident I was lucky to miss) went up and down in joy and safety.  They took flashlights up, and brought down a rusty old saw that I will use to make more Mardi Gras props.

The whole place was gazed on, smiled at, basement to attic.  Several of the mansion’s owners have left it unhappily.  The place needed a Jesus (who doesn’t?), and, as I hoped, one good way to make a Jesus is to round up a bunch of cheerful people in gorgeous clothes and give them wine.

Ballooning

“He looks like The Great Oz,” a friend wrote.  I found this caricature while researching my house.  Myers, the guy who built it, is in a balloon because he was a member of the Kansas City Aero Club.  In his day, around the turn of the 20th century, flying was a dangerous, wacky hobby.

Last weekend, I drove up to the monastery in Atchison for the retreat I had signed up for.  The theme of the retreat was “The Wizard of Oz.”  I have loved the story for years—the book and the movie.  As I drove north, next to the river and back and forth over the Missouri River, I was eating a sandwich and thinking about The Great Oz.  He was a flim-flam man, a con artist, a Harold Hill, a charletan.  And he was into balloons, like George Myers.

The Great Oz (not his real name) goes up in a hot air balloon, gets blown off course, and ends up in Oz.  Like Dorothy, he doesn’t especially want to be there, but there he is.  He is hailed as superhuman (like Dorothy), and installed as Wizard by the people of the Emerald City.  He makes himself a wizard, because people want to think he is one.  He pretends to power, although he has some authentic power.  He can make a balloon rise.  It’s just the navigation he struggles with.

I ended up in the Oz of the compound, that is, the mansion and the carriage house where I started renting three years ago.  My landlord, who first welcomed me, didn’t exactly proclaim me a god, but he was short of stature and cheerful—part munchkin, part Truman Capote.

Dorothy and her crew, of course, expose Oz.  He is a humbug.  “Humbug” is old-fashioned for “bullshit.”

Frank L. Baum, creator of The Great Oz, was a flim-flam man himself.  He tried a million different jobs, moved all over, and made a huge mess of his life before turning the Oz business into a business.  Just last week, we read an essay in my class which included this quote: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” and in every class I had a kid who could explain what that meant in the context of the story: “He’s not a real wizard.”  The story endures.

My retreat was in Atchison, hometown of Amelia Earhart, famous flyer.  Near Atchison, my grandfather is buried in a country cemetery.  He also flew out of northeastern Kansas.  In the 1940s, when flight was less dangerous, but still glamorous, he left rural Kansas to become a pilot. There is an airplane etched on his headstone.  He came back to where he started, in the end.

I’ve always wanted to learn to fly, to go up in a small plane.  I always wondered if my grandfather passed some flying lust on to me.  He would not approve of me trying to fly a plane, though.  I know that.  “Never fly with a weekend pilot,” he said.  “These guys are dangerous.  They don’t know what they’re doing.”

On my list of things to do before I die, composed in third grade, I had “go up in a hot air balloon.”  I haven’t done it yet.

I am flying now.  Living without a landlord, wrangling the utilities and setting up a party without the luxuries of electricity or heat.  I do feel light-headed, off the ground, and invigorated.  I am above, loose, seeing things from a new place.

On the handouts at the retreat, there were images of hot air balloons.  I thought, planes may not be for me.  Last year, they didn’t agree with me at all.  I might be more of a hot air balloon person.  I have heard that they are quiet.  Once the air is heated, and you are aloft, it is silent.  There isn’t a zoom to take off.  Just a rising, rising.

Hot

It’s as hot as Qatar, I was thinking as I crossed the street.  Maybe.  Kansas City in August can have heat as invasive and offensive as the Middle East.  Not quite the dazzling temperatures, but the sticky air makes up the difference.  I was remembering visiting my friend in Qatar– the first day I went out, on a grand journey across four lanes of traffic to Doha’s biggest and best mall.  I had been instructed to cover my knees and shoulders, out of respect.  How do they cover up in the crazy heat? I wondered.  Once I stepped outside, I realized: it doesn’t matter.  It’s so hot, nothing matters.  There is no defense.  Also, they stay in the air conditioning.

Last summer, I was in Rome, and I sweated so much I was willing to take two showers a day– even standing on feet so sore that they felt like they were stuffed with broken glass.  If I was out during siesta time (amateur mistake), I would feel faint crossing the street.  In some of my photos, my pale face is as red as my Hawaiian dress.

I went from Kansas City heat into the air conditioning to drink my coffee, and ran headlong into some nastier heat.  Some Americans are not content to object to the Muslim building project in New York City.  Some people are not timid enough to hide behind the shield of victimhood with their paranoia.  They come right out and object to new Muslim places of gathering in Temecula, California, or Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  What of the Muslim guy who took my friend and I out to dinner in Doha?

What of the Muslim day care center I visited?  As part of my previous job, here in Kansas City, I sat in the corner observing while a dozen kids listened to storytime, and then nodded off to their naptime CD.  “You are a dolphin.  You are swimming, happy and free and peaceful….”  Dangerous folks indeed.

If only segregating and limiting freedoms would protect us from people who scare us.  If only we could predict who was going to turn crazy and murderous, who would suddenly want to kill his neighbors.  I think the impossibility of predicting behavior is a great rationale for gun control.  But that’s a different story.

The article ended with a cheerful quote from a Dr. Mansoor Mirza: “Every new group coming to this country– Jews, Catholics, Irish, Germans, Japanese– has gone through this.  Now I think it’s our turn to pay the price, and eventually we will be comign out of this, too.”  So cool.  So cool.  How can anyone be that cool in August?  I am amazed.

The article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/us/08mosque.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1