Yesterday I was up at the Cloisters looking at a famous painting of the annunciation.  A teeny Jesus is flying in Mary’s window, teeny streaks of light behind him, a toothpick cross on his back.  He reminds me of Tinkerbell.

The tour guide said the announcement, the word of God, impregnated Mary, so Jesus was headed to her ear.

Do you know what’s inside you?  Or how it got in there?

Or do you know what’s inside and what’s outside?  Or what is chemical, what is science, and what is natural, whatever we mean by natural?

It still pisses me off that my anxiety remains relatively untouched by meditating, yoga, a hot bath, a massage.  Those things help keep me going when I’m in the worst of it, but they help only a little.  The itch is so deep in there, I can’t really reach it with anything but chemicals.

What helps is the drug no one actually knows exactly how it works, but perhaps keeps the serotonin in my brain from disappearing, raising my levels of serotonin to where most people’s are normally.  And where mine were until six years ago.  What we know is people can feel better.

When you’ve been having panic attacks and pretty much everything sounds scary to you for no reason, feeling better is a more intense version of when you have a terrible flu, and the first time you leave the house again, you just look out at the world, and your walking and talking and all the stimulation, you’re like, “Awesome!  This is amazing!”  I think, Why would I be afraid of the cafeteria?  Or lunchtime?  Or the bus?  Wow, that’s crazy.

It does take a while, the last week I was deliberately trying to force my brain wrong, to see if I could… could I?  I could work myself up a little, get nervous, that’s as far as it could go.

My sister came to visit, and it turned out to be less a go-save-the-faraway-family-member mission and more of a good time that showed how much better I am.

We walked in circles in Fort Tryon Park, accidentally.  I had never had trouble finding the Cloisters before, but this time, when it was raining and her shoes soaked up puddle after puddle, the curved paths, past scent-glowing lilac bushes and along the cliffs that guard the peaceful Hudson from the city, we somehow made a circle, regrouped, made another circle, whoa.  And only the third time we tried did we get a straight path, we got to where we could see the tower of the Cloisters rising above the trees.

“These trees are taller than in Kansas City,” she said.

“Nah,” I said.

“No, they are,” she said.


We got wetter, and wetter, in circles, on sidewalks, on gravel, until finally somehow we got in the right line.  I saw the bell tower first, then the driveway.

When we were little girls, our grandparents took us to the Cloisters.  We took a taxi from Penn Station.  I remember someone saying it would be a long ride, and expensive.  We saw the unicorn tapestries.  I bought a flat gold bookmark in the shape of a heart.  Like everything from New York, it was precious to me.

We joined up with a tour at the museum, and the guide explained that a tapestry and two different shades because the bottom was a repair job.  “They did a wonderful job,” she said, “but this part with the color still vivid is plant dyes, and the part done with chemical dyes is the part that is all faded.

“So, go plants!” she said.  The plants in the tapestry were roses, which, in medieval times, had plenty of thorns and were heavily scented, and did not climb.  And lilies of the valley, who hang as jingle bells down stems, we had seen them in Fort Tryon Park, licked with rain.  Lilies of the valley are the flowers our stepmom dug up from her mother’s yard, and planted in her own.

In the center was a tree that isn’t real.  Only the fruits are real, pomegranates, which stretched to show their seeds, and dropped beads of juice.

Image: Detail of “The Unicorn in Captivity,” Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Small Animals

13625378_10208590462653305_9197893018731847063_nI thought Sardi’s was a tourist trap.  And I thought I could not afford it.  My way of going to see Broadway shows has always been to eat a slice of pizza beforehand, because after paying for a ticket that is all that seems prudent.

I happened to be meeting a friend in Times Square, though, it is halfway between us, and I thought of Sardi’s.  It was lunch, maybe we could swing it for lunch.

The waiters had jackets, the walls were the caricatures, and were the red I think a restaurant should be.  All restaurants should have red walls.  Except Greek restaurants, which should have white ones, and Mexican restaurants, which should be yellow.  The ceiling had acoustic tile, which reminded me this was a real place.

Amazing places are also real, hard to absorb, but true.  The pyramids in Egypt are, I guess, a real place.  I know the Louvre is real.  It was hard for me to believe it, though, when I was there.

We ate and had a good chat.  It was a late lunch, and there were only three tables of us left, the place had cleared out from the Wednesday matinee crowd.

“He’s in the bar area,” our waitress said to the couple next to us.

“Excuse me, who were you asking about?” my friend asked, thank God, because I was trying to figure out how to get them talking.

“Her brother, Arthur Miller,” the man said.

Then I had a heart attack and couldn’t think what to say.

For six years, I taught The Crucible.  “Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer,” I thought, rather than “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another!” which would have been cool.

Every time I taught it, with my five sections of juniors– so that is thirty times I read it– I would stop there and say, “Why does he say that?  Does beer not freeze?”

The kids were in chemistry that same year, and usually there would be one kid who would explain, “Alcohol doesn’t freeze.”  It was a test to see who knew about chemistry, or about liquor, as a junior in high school.  “You can put a bottle of vodka in the freezer,” someone might say, and I would think, Well, that tells me something about you.

I did not know about the freezing point of alcohol when I was a junior in high school because I was a nerd.

I wanted desperately for Arthur Miller’s sister to begin telling us her life story and I would have sat rapt the entire time, but I couldn’t think what to ask because I was stuck on, Arthur Miller was a real person, with a sister, and Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer.

For the record, I don’t think anyone would say my justice would freeze beer.  I would say, the quality of mercy is not strained, it drops as the gentle rain from heaven, another dramatic quote that sticks with me, this one from driving past the words engraved in the sign at the public hospital next to where I worked.

Arthur Miller was a real person, not a saint, wait, saints were real people, too.  Once.

Arthur Miller’s sister is not her name.  What was her favorite play?  I managed to ask.  She is an actress.  “Between jobs,” I said; she chuckled.

Death of A Salesman,” she said.

Well, I would have to read that again.  It had been a long time.

My imagined Broadway in New York is the ’40s and ’50s, those shows, their clothes, good wool and high heels and clothes that gave women shape instead of them being expected to provide it, and small drinks, little wine glasses, little martini glasses, automats.  Everything drier and sleeker and smaller.

This isn’t to say I don’t love being here now, a woman who isn’t married and doesn’t have to be, with current Times Square, much more money, much more diverse, less provincial, less formal.  I love the people dressed in cartoon character costumes, now confined to blue-painted patches of the sidewalk so they don’t get in the way of we civilians.  I love the embarrassing capitalist mess of it.

Joan Copeland is her name, and she was one of the first members of the Actors Studio, along with, you know, Elia Kazan.

I’m glad I didn’t know this while chatting with her, I would have lost my shit even more.

I was conscious of not asking her about her brother, being a sibling to someone so famous must be kind of a drag.  “What was your favorite part?” we asked.

She talked about playing parts in soap operas.  Which reminded me of my favorite old man I ever met in New York, a retired violinist for the Met.  I met him at MoMA, and he told me about hanging out with Rothko (who was also a real person, I know), and when I asked him what his favorite opera was, he said, “The shortest ones.”  Work is work.  And I wasn’t sure how clear her thoughts or memories were, she’s of an age to have so many thoughts and memories they could get crowded and jumbled.

“Has Sardi’s changed?” we asked.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I used to have that corner table every night,” she said.  “They saved it for me.”

“Wow,” I said.  I could also say that.

“When my brother was blacklisted, you couldn’t go eat in the restaurants if you were thought to be a liberal, you know, they said communist then, but a liberal, really.  Vincent not only let Arthur eat here, he would be out in the street and yell down to him, ‘Welcome, come on in.'”

I asked if I could take my picture with her, would she mind, she said no.  I sat next to her and she asked if she needed lipstick.  I said yes.  She pulled out her beautiful black satin clutch, fooled around in it for the lipstick and applied it to her bottom lip perfectly, looking into her palm as if it had a mirror in it but it did not.  Her fingernails were red, her blouse was just the right shape for her figure, her earrings dangled just below the length of her hair.

Someone mentioned men going bald, and she started singing, “A bald man…. don’t kiss a man/whose name you don’t know….  What song is that?”

We didn’t know.

“I usually think it’s a good idea,” I said, “but not always.”

She was in thirteen shows on Broadway, lots of soaps, and had bit parts on television and in movies.  She was an understudy for Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn.  She knew Marilyn Monroe from the Actors Studio, but did not know Monroe was dating her brother.  (“I’m not much up on gossip,” she reportedly said.)

I walked down subway stairs in love with her, “I am in love with her,” I thought, which made me start singing, in my head, “I’m in love/ I’m in love/I’m in love/I’m in love….”  That is maybe my favorite show.

I would rather, actually, meet Joan Copeland than Arthur Miller.  Most of us artists are small animals, the squirrels and sparrows of the art world, not lions like Arthur Miller.  We’re all related, though, all in that family, and it was lovely to meet a grandmother.



IMG_2085 (1)The monument is like a ship, a big black marble ship you walk in, can look up to see the buildings that scar the sky, and forward, to see the semicircle of marble where there are symbols.  Symbols of various good ideas, from various African cultures, and a crescent moon, and a cross.  I was alone.  I was alone, I couldn’t see any other people.

It was on the my list of things to see, to distract myself from the fact that I have no job and am about to run out of money: the African Burial Ground.

Being alone in Manhattan is a strange and wondrous thing.  I only remember it happening a few places: once or twice in the teacher’s lounge at my old school, and once in a deeply tucked-in dead-end room at the Met.

Cinema has taught us to be alone in Manhattan is also to know the apocalypse.  How it might be to be really alone, not feel alone or seem alone.

I was alone, though, wholly alone, well, with whatever is left of 15,000 people who had been buried there because they were black.

Most of the parks you could name in Manhattan used to be cemeteries for the poor: Bryant Park, Union Square, Washington Square.  In Washington Square park, perhaps 20,000 dead.  What should it be?  How long could you nod at the dead?

When you are from a newer place, a place relatively undisputed, as places go, it seemed to me history might be thoughtful, progressive.  Were there Indians in Kansas?  Oh, there were.  A long time ago.

At first New Amsterdamians and New Yorkers of all backgrounds were buried together.  Then, in 1697, the church where I worshipped this morning (well, its ancestor self) banned black people from being buried within the city limits of New York.

During the Revolutionary War, the British held New York City, making it a magnet for escaped slaves.  Before the revolution, almost all blacks in New York were slaves.  Afterward, only 2/3 of them were.

The freeing came in fits and starts.  Ultimately it was July 4, 1827, when all slaves in New York were freed, no matter when they had been born, or to whom they were enslaved.

When I visited Dr. King’s home in Atlanta, I was disturbed to see how few white people were there.  I wondered how many white people visited this monument.  We were all saved from slavery, we all live under its shadow still, and we all require encouragement to mourn and honor our past and hope for better.

Anyway I was alone at the African burial ground site, with no one to dislike for not being there.  It was a hot that could be held by not moving too fast.

I went uptown.  I got a cookie and sat in the one-floor-below-ground garden of the former Whitney.  It isn’t really a garden.  It’s an outside place to sit, where the heavy jutting outness of the building shaded us so fully that when the traffic and wind sound became rain sound, we could only see it against the face of the brick building across the street.  “I think we’re all right here,” I said to the woman who had sat next to me.  She had an Italian accent and was also eating a cookie.  She nodded.  We watched the rain far below our brown granite awning.

It is a building I at first hated, the first time I visited, when I was eighteen.  I came to find it warm, the way Frank Lloyd Wright wanted the Guggenheim to be, and human-sized, and digestible.  Its cubby windows, its mini village snuggled in the stairwell.

The building has recently gone from being as cool as the Whitney is to as uncool as the Met is.  The guards are now in their dress blues, the whole system is on the Met system.  The building is now part of the Met, New York’s aircraft-carrier sized cathedral, rather than the Whitney, who moved downtown to wave in the whole overexpensiveness of contemporary art with a restaurant for people who want to be seen there, not a cafeteria with kids’ meals or an atrium full of footworn tourists wearily looking at their phones waiting for someone they know to marathon it through another half mile of paintings  and mummy cases.

Unfinished was the show at this new-christened place, Met Breuer.

DP363719Jasper Johns’ paint-by-number target: he created it, you complete it.  Never completed.  Never to be.  Until that apocalypse day you are alone in Manhattan and you find the glass smashed and you take it out.  And paint, careful or sloppy, all yours.

DT356183.jpgAndy Warhol’s paint-by-number, a violin half done politely and half done comically.

Macchi_2003.91-5.jpgPerhaps my favorite: a film that has an introductory card (A Film by) and then a countdown, 5…4…3…2…1…1/2…1/4….  I stopped and chuckled, and then I waited and watched other people watch it and get puzzled or disappointed but no one laughed so I didn’t like anyone else in the gallery.  It was funny, it was funny, nothing happens, you see, nothing ever happens, things just get smaller and recycle themselves.

Old paintings, funny to see in that space as you are not used to seeing the Madonna and Christ treated properly in that space, only mocked and rehashed there, in the moderns, the contemporaries, but with the Met’s paintings there, you can see how some painters began loving or at least respectful paintings of them and stopped, for one reason or another, who knows.  Portraits of the rich without faces, perhaps they were not paid for, faces.

DT2780.jpgA Whistler with the suggestions that show what it is like to be somewhere without being there at all, how people move away from you without moving.

IA-Antwerp RH_S_181_Foto002.jpgA painting of horses I drew into, and moved like horse, horses in a battle that shows how real and unreal battle is, how real and unreal enemies, friends, because it is unfinished, not on purpose, by happenstance.

Images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show, “Unfinished”:

  • Jasper Johns, “Target”
  • Andy Warhol, “Do It Yourself (Violin)”
  • Jorge Macchi, “La Fleche de Zenon”
  • Anton Raphael Mengs, “Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, duquesa de Huescar”
  • Perino del Vaga (Pietro Buonaccorsi), “Holy Family with St. John the Baptist”
  • James McNeil Whistler, “Cremorne Gardens, No. 2”
  • Peter Paul Rubens, “Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry”


Collective Unconscious

This was my favorite show in a long time.  IMG_0679IMG_0682

First, laboratory glassware with the ink ghosts of crowds living in it.  A whole laboratory’s worth.  I used to teach at a school with a great old chemistry lab, and stripped and punched and crumbled as the whole building was, the wood cabinets and the glassware were all there.  What was not were the ghosts, ghosts are usually white, but these were black, the images of all sorts of things that had already happened.

IMG_0678Then tree paintings with levels living inside them, one level living horizontal, another vertical.  Right now there are tape measure sculptures on the High Line, next to trees there are tape measures, as if trees are nothing more than what they will be, lumber, paper, and I am the worst offender, as I told a student this week, “I am a writer, wasting trees is what I do,” “Ms Schurman, those downtown Brooklyn people, they’re activists, it’s so annoying, they’re always asking why I don’t recycle paper at the copy shop.”

IMG_0671Cutting boards, same as we have at home (tepid white plastic, I wish we had a wooden one but I am living communally and that is what we have), and with scratches, these, lined up, are oceanscapes, somehow, how can the ocean be cut? How can it be made of slices?  How can it appear on plastic?  The ocean isn’t cut into anything, is it, except visually?

IMG_0672A flag becoming itself through red velvet ropes that are stretched, cut people out.

I rarely like art that becomes political, apart from the sense that everything is political (it is), but Yoan Capote is Cuban.

What I know of Cuba is the (eye-roll) American fetish for cigars when overseas.  I know it twice, once through customs, and Before Night Falls, which mainly impressed me with the author’s fabulous sexual adventures.  He kept busy.

IMG_0669There is a pair of scissors that somehow became Florida.  To cut things up?  People in Florida cut.  All I know of Florida is Disney World, which is another country the same way Cuba is, maybe much the same way, that is, things are inside-out and backwards and money is different and you  must be happy with yourself, as with communism.  But seriously, I don’t know anything about Florida except Disney World and the Oceola rest stop where our car broke down once, we sat and played cards in a booth in the half of the gas station that used to be a diner but wasn’t, anymore.

IMG_0674There are doorknobs that start from one which is real, in a real door, and go up and up until they are tiny enough to swallow, with a tiny lock that isn’t a lock anymore.  Maybe that isn’t political, not that it matters.

A great show is beautifully imagined and made, and think-infested, doesn’t take itself too seriously but is dead serious in its own way.

IMG_0670What is sort of an animal’s rib cage, but is actually from a machine that has lungs, machine lungs, inside machine iron ribs.

IMG_0667Glasses that become almost another pair of glasses, whatever that might mean, to see with someone else’s glasses, someone else’s face, if you have a boyfriend, you might sometimes wear his glasses, and he, yours, for a lark, you could see a little better with his but not really much, and he could only get a headache from yours, anyone else just looks like Coke bottles up, like joke glasses, with yours, even though you paid extra for the superthin lenses.

IMG_0675Floor to ceiling head of a man, made of metal, those are hinges, the man is That Man who is everywhere, the hinges, him, the doors all around him, like he grew out of a pile of them, the doors, the doors, the hinges, from Cuba, yes.  Can you make a portrait of Fidel Castro that seems great, not shrill?  In fact it is, doors are doors, doors are lost, don’t lead to anything, used to, could lead to things, are off their hinges.IMG_0676

Images here by me.

Yoan Capote, “Collective Unconscious” at Jack Shainman Gallery on 20th Street