Jul 1 2012

A Slow Read

A crowd of people – family and friends – descended on Paris at the end of June and I wanted to see them all. I wanted to visit with them and catch up, host them for aperitifs and dinner, take them to my favorite cafés in this city where I’ve made my life. I’m truly happy for each and every visitor, but why is it they all arrive at once, with overlapping itineraries? It’s not that they become my responsibility – all these people are grown adults (or in the care of their parents) and have navigated their lives perfectly well to get themselves to an airport and get on a plane to Paris, so they can get themselves around here – but there is a mild but haranguing sense of duty, perhaps, but also desire, to help with the trip, to enhance their experience, maximize their time in Paris, a city with so much to offer and yet if you don’t know where to look, you can miss the best of it.

There were, as well, more shows to attend: Buddy-roo’s tap-dance recital, in which she had five minutes on stage in a red flapper dress, with two young men in black and white tuxedos flanking her, all three tapping their heels and toes together; and the final viola recital for Short-pants, the last of a litany of end-of-school-year performances and activities. Not to mention several beauty-nurse type appointments of my own, to put my person in order prior to going away for most of July.

Part of me was screaming for all of it to stop, such a jolt to my Camino-quieted system to have to ramp up and run at this pace of scheduled events every night for weeks in a row. This is why it was my first instinct to say no when my friend invited me to use the gallery where he was showing his artwork to host a soirée for my friends and talk about my Camino experience.

The theme of his show was This Here Now, a collection of odd objects he’s literally picked up in different places in the world, mounted on distressed zinc plates and framed, each one commemorating the place and the moment where the object was found. It was very much in sync with my walking experience, the sense of slowing down and noticing what’s right in front of you, here and now and acknowledging the beauty and story within it.

On my way to I meet him for lunch and to look at his exhibit, I was sure that I shouldn’t do it. My back-from-the-Camino self was determined to walk slower and take on less, to leave stretches of time, time for me, and time for my family. But standing in the gallery, his constructed paintings surrounding and delighting me, I heard from another self, a voice who whispered to me often during my long walks. It’s your writing, it’s art. Do it.

I remember my parents returning from their voyages – their treasured vacation in Greece the strongest memory of this – and they’d put together a slide show and invite people over for a dinner party. My mother would conjure up a menu of the featured country’s cuisine, and after dessert the guests would assemble in our living room for slides and stories about the trip. I’d yawn through it, convinced my parents’ friends were far too polite. This is why I thought it’d make sense to skip the pictures, and to excerpt a few key passages from favorite blog posts and do a very short reading. If I picked the right passages, the audience could picture it on their own. And otherwise we’d ply people with wine and have a nice time.

~ ~ ~

Little by little it slips away, my newfound rootedness giving way to the daily duties that call me, and I don’t know how not to answer. To some things, yes: I have unsubscribed to a dozen Internet newsletters. I refused paying work because of my out of town guests. I didn’t sign up to accompany Buddy-roo’s class on their day-long end-of-school sortie. I’ve said no to fundraising events and lunch invitations with people who aren’t mission critical. I haven’t looked at my Twitter feed in weeks (and I don’t miss it). Nonetheless, it felt like my energy was getting scattered from all the running around and doing more, when all I want to do is less.

But how? Every time I clear something away, a new task replaces it. We left the eye doctor last week with a prescription for Short-pants to see an orthopiste, a kiné for the eyes. This will require two visits a week for six weeks in a row. So next fall – it’s impossible to start this summer between our July vacation and every French orthopiste’s August holiday – on top of everything else we’ll be traipsing around twice a week to these appointments. It’s important and necessary, and in itself it’s not such an enormous task. It’s just that every little thing like this adds yet another detail to remember, to organize and execute, and I can’t not do them. After the Camino, I wanted to do less. But less of what?

~ ~ ~

Turnabout is fairplay, I suppose, so just as I’ve rallied for Short-pants’ and Buddy-roo’s performances, they showed up for mine. (Rallied is perhaps too exuberant to describe Buddy-roo’s reaction, but once she got there she didn’t mind.) My mother-in-love was in town too, a poet who’s done her fair share of readings so she had a few tips for me, accepted gladly as the time I had to prepare was minimal and a seasoned pro’s advice gave me comfort.

When you read your words out loud, they change. It’s not like what you hear in your head when you write them, or read to yourself. The words become truer. When you say them out loud their meaning is enlarged and magnified. You have to slow down and treat the words deliberately. Each time I practiced reading my selections, making small edits and changes along the way to suit a live occasion, I appropriated the words even more. With every read-through, I took back a little of the groundedness I’d felt slipping away. I needed to be in the this here now to be able to do the reading, and reading out loud was just what it took to get there.

De-facto bought wine and my good culinary-inclined friend prepared for me, generously, an array of pintxos and a gateau Basque, regional eats in the spirit of the reading. (My mother was smiling down at her, I’m sure.) A small group assembled, but it was just the right group. We took our time. I read one piece, and then we waited. An hour later, I read another piece. In between, a quick hint from my mother-in-love: “You could read even slower if you wanted.” So I did.

After the readings, the guests lingered at the gallery until nearly midnight, making a dinner out of the hors d’oeuvres and stretching out the evening with wine and laughter. I had a chance to visit with everyone, falling into long and meandering, meaningful conversations that affirmed for me how this reading, which felt at first like too much to do, turned out to be exactly what I needed. Note to self: do more of these.

All the images in the post are by Dan Walker.


Nov 11 2011

In the Cloud

I want to be in the cloud. Not the up-there-in-the-ether-all-safe-and-stored-and-accessible-from-any-device cloud, I mean the creative cloud, the cloud of that fuzzy, I-don’t-know-but-something-might-be-emerging cloud, both thrilling and unnerving at once, the cloud of my imagination. I want to go there and stay there and live there, mindfully navigating life in a writerly way, a painterly way – even thought I don’t paint – or a musical way, any way that might be an artistic way.

Once upon a time I had my fingers in glue stick and construction paper, cutting out magazines and making and pasting creative little things. I wrote daily in my journal, I did multiple free-writes on the same prompt. I remember feeling perfectly capable of taking time, without the gnawing sense that I might be wasting it, time being that precious commodity that we all have exactly the same amount of but some people seem to use more industriously than others. Not that industry is the truest measure of contentment. I would like to do less.

I would like to tether myself to this cloud and move deliberately, through the potentially artistic moments of my day. Spooning a mountain of frothy milk into the coffee in my favorite mug with just the right swirl and then doing nothing but sitting and drinking it; handwriting funky postcards to far flung but not forgotten friends before opening email and RSS feeds to respond to the “urgent” news of the day. Drawing a flower on the steamed-up mirror after a unhurried hot shower – better yet a drawn-out bath – and taking the time to add detail to each of its pedals; sitting pensively on the barstool, imagining the life of the Asian woman with gray squared-off bangs sitting across from me at the café; stopping off at a bookstore on the way home to browse the stacks randomly, pulling titles off the shelves and reading paragraphs, just short snacks in a feast of enticing literature.

I want to mount those family pictures on the bathroom wall in that funky frame I found, produce that little film of my mother walking through the rooms of our old house, finish that scrapbook of Buddy-roo’s blessing before she realizes her sister’s is completed but hers – though its pieces are ready to go – has never been assembled. I want to read without being interrupted or without collapsing the book on my chest in utter exhaustion. I want to, when I’m feeling haunted by a passage in Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, sit down in that moment to listen to it with the Bose headphones I bought (an indulgence) to block out noise on long-haul flights when the real reason to own them is that they make everything seem alive and present and close around you.

I just want to live in a more artistic way.

I’ve decided to stop talking about being too busy. It’s a boring line of conversation, and frankly, everybody’s busy. It can’t be denied that I juggle a fair amount between work and children and De-facto and friends and the administration of our household. The latter being the most tedious, but I have not yet achieved the zensibility of regarding piles of paper-needing-attention and unwashed laundry and children’s toys and books strewn as anything but an aesthetic assault. I think back to when I lived alone – I’ve never been an everything-at-right-angles person, but it was easy to sustain some amount of sloppy kind of order in my surroundings, which permitted me to vault into the messy cloud of my own creativity without stopping at the toll booth to get there.

There is nobody standing over me insisting that I attend so diligently to the administrative details of my life (and my family’s). I had a dream that I simply stopped caring: No need to remember to stuff the little morning snack packs in their school cartables, no hounding them to straighten their rooms or finish their homework, no longer picking up the random empty glasses left on the floor behind by the couch. I let them leave all the drawers pulled out and cupboards wide open, the wet laundry festered in the machine because I couldn’t be troubled to hang it out or run it in the dryer, the furniture was no longer visible as every surface had been covered with blankets, princess costumes, doll clothes, train tracks, little bits of paper and plastic, and books left open face down to mark the page. In the dream I regarded it all with amusement, and simply joined them, unbothered by shoulds and oughts, basking single-mindedly in my unfettered imagination, up there, in the cloud.


May 17 2011

The Naked Truth

“Why are you all laughing?” The guide looked around as the group of 9 and 10-year olds congregated before the naked statue. The children giggled again, like Munchkins. She persisted, in a high-pitched voice, with her mouth shaped like she’d just bitten into a lemon. “Mais pourquoi vous riez?”

She explained that Rodin, like many sculptors, had carved nudes in order to portray the power of the human body. “If this statue were clothed,” she said, “you wouldn’t have the same sense of its power, would you?” The childrens’ heads turned side-to-side in a definitive non; they were obliged to agree with her.

I do appreciate the guide’s attempt to confront the children’s nervous laughter as they stood in front of a nude statue, but her manner was a bit patronizing and served only to fuel it. Couldn’t she remember what it was like to be ten? When body parts were all a big mystery? Or was she born a docent, immediately sensitive to all sophisticated artistic notions and nuances?

When I saw the note in Short-pantscahier de correspondance soliciting parents to accompany the field trip, I wondered whether the Musée Rodin was one I’d choose for a group of students that age. Rodin is a favorite of mine; his work so sensual, approaching the erotic in a tasteful, artistic way. At an earlier time of my life, this museum was the kind of cultural excursion I’d suggest to someone whom I hoped to know as a lover. I think maybe the last time I was at the museum was just before I seduced De-facto.

But hey, I’d rather my children learn about love and lust from art than from some mysterious link on Facebook. Plus I was curious how it would be handled, so I signed up to accompany the class.

~ ~ ~

Last weekend, we were heading down the stairs, on our way to a Wizard of Oz rehearsal, when Buddy-roo gave me her most impish look, a knowing, coy smile out of the corner of her eyes as she gazes up at me, slightly embarrassed but with a sense of superiority woven in. I know this look. Something interesting usually follows it.

“Do you and Papa do the sex?”

I love the use of the definite article. I’m not sure if this is a translation from French, where some words have definitive articles that wouldn’t in English, or if it’s just a quirky thing she picked up from talking about it in the courtyard with her school mates, which is where she says she first heard about the sex. I think De-Facto and I should start using it, too:

HIM: Would you like to have the sex now?
ME: The sex? Sure!

It’s not the first time she’s asked this question, so she wasn’t asking because she didn’t know. She just wanted to talk about sex. Rather than risk dismissing her question by referring to our previous discussions – I want her to feel like she can bring up the sex with me anytime she wants – I answered her as though it were the first time she’d asked.

“Tell me, what does it mean to you, to do the sex?”

Her answer, through a sheepish grin, “it’s when you get naked and you kiss.”

“Oh, well yes, Papa and I have done that.”

“There are two kinds,” she said, switching on her authoritative voice. “There’s the sex, and then there’s the sex at the beach.”

A pastel-colored drink with a miniature umbrella came to mind, something with a sugar-induced headache the next day. But I asked for clarification.

“Well, it’s when you get naked and go swimming,” she said. And then, after waiting a moment, “Have you and Papa…?”

I nodded – not too vigorously – but affirmatively.

She covered her mouth with a curved palm and giggled.

~ ~ ~

When it comes to handling questions of a sensitive nature, I try to use plain language, keep answers simple and address only the question that’s been asked. “Did I really come out of your belly?” is answered with, “Yes.” There’s no need to explain how a baby got in or out of my belly – unless someone asks. Once Short-pants did ask, and I told her a woman’s body changes in amazing ways when it’s time for a baby to be born, everything stretches to make a big opening, and then goes back to normal (more or less) after the baby comes out. She was satisfied with this response.

I read this advice in a parenting book and so far it seems to work. It’s not foolproof, as evidenced by this video, a link for which, coincidentally, was sent to me by two different people on the same day, the very day I went to the Rodin museum with Short-pants’ class. This got me thinking. Am I copping out on the sex talk? Me, Ms. In-touch-with-her-sexuality? Ms. I-once-did-lots-of-research-for-a-TV-documentary-about-sex-in-Paris? Now that I’m a mom, have I developed a prurient streak?

At the museum, one of the other mothers who’d come along to chaperone leaned in and asked me, “Have you had the sex talk yet?” I immediately answered yes, thinking about a book I’d given Short-pants called The Care & Keeping of You, a lite version of Our Bodies, Our Selves written for little girls. It contains dozens of helpful explanations about all the changes that happen as you enter puberty, with a few anatomically-descript cartoonish-drawings in the section about menstruation. Then I had to correct myself; this book has nothing in it about the boy’s plumbing, and nothing about the deed itself. We do have a book that’s about the birds and the bees, First Comes Love, (Short-pants likes books, and apparently so do I) but it’s still stashed in my closet, waiting for its moment to be presented.

“I’m waiting for her to ask,” I said.

~ ~ ~

When I was seven years-old – younger than both Short-pants and Buddy-roo – I remember playing a little you-show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine with the neighbor boys. It was all very innocent and we tired of the game rather quickly, returning to the dirt track and quarry we’d carved out of the sandbox for our Tonka trucks. But I understood that being naked – even partially – had something to do with making babies. That night, lying in bed, I convinced myself that I was pregnant. The next morning, I told my mother.

“Oh honey, don’t worry,” she said, “you’re not pregnant.”

Did my mother wonder why I thought I was pregnant? Wasn’t she at least a little curious what prompted my question? I don’t fault her. She was from a different time and generation. But I was left to fester with my concern, because I hadn’t asked the right question.

I ended up going to my sister, who was in the bathtub shaving her legs, and when I told her I was probably pregnant, she explained to me why I wasn’t, very matter-of-factly. I was repulsed.

I think this is the reason why we avoid the sex question, no matter what generation you’re from. I don’t think we do it to protect their innocence, we do it to protect ours. Up until now, there’s this last pocket of privacy between the adults in the household, something those damn kids don’t have their runny noses poking into, something that’s ours alone. The minute the children understand how they came to exist, and how it involved this rather (until you’ve tried it) unseemly act, it’s all over. They’ll look at us differently. They’ll sneer at us and whisper about our body parts intersecting. The respect that they’ve granted us as parents will be degraded into the disgust one has for a dog that’s humping a fire hydrant. (Just for De-facto, of course.)

If Buddy-roo knows it’s about getting naked and kissing because it’s a subject of conversation in the school courtyard, and Short-pants has a book with drawings of a developing girl’s body, chances are they know a good part of the story, like I did. Do I wait for them to ask the question directly, leaving them in the dark, or the partial-dark? Or is it time to volunteer the whole naked truth?


Mar 8 2011

Determined Women

One morning in November of 1977, my father woke up to discover his wife pictured on the front page of the daily newspaper. She stood with her arm raised defiantly in the air waving a placard, cheering beside her cohorts, the delegation of women from New York State who were attending the Equal Rights Amendment caucus in Houston, Texas. The photograph had been picked up by the Associated Press wire service and appeared in newspapers nationwide – my mother received clippings from friends and family from all over the country.

I would never have called my mother an activist, but I think she classifies. Throughout her life, she was engaged in local and state (and even a little national) politics. A Rockefeller Republican – for real, she knew him – she managed to be fiscally conservative but socially tolerant, something that’s hard to find these days with the cacophony of the current political climate in the US. She was pro-choice and anti-discrimination. She worked for the passage of the ERA because she believed it would give women the opportunities that they deserved. Growing up with my mother, I couldn’t help but be cognizant of the strides women had made. I admired Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. I would be a feminist too, just like my mom.

It helped a lot that my father stood beside her. He respected her immensely and the support and encouragement she gave to him was reciprocated. As a little girl, watching and learning about male-female relationships, this was the ideal scenario to observe. It created an expectation, one we ought to cultivate in all little girls, everywhere.

A small aberration: in college I attempted to distance myself from the radical segment of the women’s movement by giving a speech about how I didn’t call myself a feminist. It was an exercise for a class titled Persuasive Communication, which happened to be taught by the resident feminist on campus, a woman who once phoned the request line at the college radio station to complain about the lyrics to The Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb. My speech, I’m afraid, wasn’t terribly persuasive, but it was a pass/fail course and I still got credit for standing up in front of the room. A few years later, when I went to work in the real world, it didn’t take long before I regretted the talking points of that speech. I came to understand that the existence of the radical is what moves the middle, it draws attention to issues that are otherwise swept under the carpet. There is good reason to stand with your strident sisters.

But what do girls today know of the battles fought by our grandmothers and great grandmothers so that we could be liberated? My daughters have seen the photograph of their grandmother practicing her feminist politics, but they don’t understand where she was and what happened, or that even though the amendment was never ratified, it still had an important impact on women’s rights.

“Women, for real, weren’t allowed to wear pants?” Buddy-roo said, in response to my list of all rights women had to fight for. Short-pants was fixated on the idea of equal pay for equal work, shocked that a man might be paid more for doing the exactly same job.

“Does Papa make more than you?”

“When we do the same kind of work, we make the same amount.”

“Did you have to fight him for that?”

I explained that because the previous generations of women protested and pressed for change, now I don’t have to fight, at least not as much as they did. My soapbox continued, delving into the complexities of women’s advancement and how although great strides have been made – here’s where the girls were starting to tune out so I raised my voice – we shouldn’t take them for granted ever. I told them how women are still paid and treated differently in many professions, especially when it comes to top management, and how there are some people who want to take away a woman’s right to medical care and advice that allows us to remain independent.

“But Papa said women were taking over the world,” said Short-pants, a reference to a speech De-facto made to his Toastmasters club. His speech combined his story of renting a muscle car with a summary of an Atlantic Magazine article about the end of men ruling in the workplace. He practiced it for her so many times that she memorized it, too. “Men. Love. Cars.” She’d repeat these opening words of his speech, emphasizing each word, just as he did.

“Even so,” I said, “we have a long way to go.” I thought about the veiled women who might prefer to be uncovered, and about the atrocities against women that are permitted and promoted in other cultures. Some day I’ll make the girls more aware of this particular brand of religious and cultural inequity, but it didn’t have to be today. They were still getting their heads around the idea of being prohibited from voting, playing sports or simply wearing trousers.

All of this just the warm-up for an inspired cultural excursion to a little museum down the street, the Galerie des bibliotèque-de-la-ville, which happened to be exhibiting a collection of photographs of French feminist movement. Short-pants was eager to come along, Buddy-roo not so much, opting to stay at home and watch a Barbie movie that I would later try to interpret for her through a feminist lens: “See, the princess didn’t need the prince to rescue her, she had her own creative ideas and they worked together to solve the problem.”

What better way to celebrate Women’s History month than an edifying stroll through French feminist history, of which I know very little. But even if I didn’t recognize the names of the women in all those photographs, I could recognize their spirit; there was a look of determination in the eyes of every portrait we saw.

I pointed this out to Short-pants, as we walked past the framed photographs, reading the paragraph about each woman’s contribution to the feminist movement. I told her about how the simple choices that she and I count on would not exist were it not for the spirit of these courageous women. What I didn’t her – not yet – is how lately it feels like women’s rights are being assailed in the United States, and that ultimately having a foot on French soil may be the thing keeps her free and fierce.

“When I grow up,” she said, nodding at the photographs, “I’m going to be just as determined.”

“That’s just what it takes,” I said, hoping she never has to put her fist in the air to get what she wants. But if it comes to that – because she’s got a bit of her grammy in her – I think she’ll be up to the task.


Aug 9 2009

Fine Art

If you liked the painting of our courtyard featured in the previous post, then you should know it’s painted by a friend of mine who’s an artist – my singing, painting, writing, wondering, wandering and wonderful friend, Caroline. You can see and learn more about her artwork here.
courtyard_painting_by_caroline
She used to live in Paris but she moved away more than a year ago. I miss her terribly.

She’s a professional vagabond these days; traveling across the United States with her clever, cool and very funny “I really love zees guy” film-making husband.

Nobody knows where they’ll end up. San Francisco? New York? But wherever and whenever, I’m certain she’ll collect her painting supplies. She does accept projects on commission (and can work from a photograph) and more than a few of my friends are thrilled with the portraits she’s painted. Ricky is one of her patrons; she’s done at least three paintings for him.

So, just a suggestion: bookmark her website for future reference, in case you ever want to present a unique and artistic gift to someone you love.


Apr 7 2009

Paying the Price

I got a break. I should not complain.

I had a week off from mothering. A vacation from rushing about to get two little people from task to task. Seven straight days of being me, not being mama. By the end of it all, I missed those little girls something fierce. But I took full advantage of having a stretch of time to myself.
mosaic_turned
The conference was a success. The program I led (about arts and creative process) finished on a high note, filled with color and gratitude. I grew fond of my co-facilitators, made real bonds with some of the participants. Italy gifted me with its vibrant shades and textures. And though the departure could be likened to a breech birth – the confusion of trains or taxis, a mix-up of number of bags vs. number of kilos – I made it out, and made it home.

But then I had to pay the price.

It appears that while I was gone our apartment was hit by a fantastic tornado. The girls’ room was especially devastated; I hardly recognized it with all the debris. Books and blocks and doll clothes and little confetti-like pieces of paper and pens were everywhere. Loops of long hair in bunches had fallen to the floor in every part of the room. (Each doll had been coiffed and now wears a mullet.) The girls’ dirty clothes were rolled into balls and stuffed behind shelves and in the spaces between furniture. It was a sight to behold.

Returning from a trip like this, I must always steel myself before making that first step into the apartment. It never looks as I left it. You can’t really expect it to; nobody keeps your house the same way you do. But still, it’s stunning how completely anarchic things can get in my absence.

De-facto astutely anticipated the potential fall-out and invited our neighbors and their visiting family for dinner. One cannot throw a fit before such an audience. This is why there are doors on bathrooms, and why taps have cold hand_sestriwater for splashing on your face. They’d finished dinner, but saved plates for weary travelers (my mother-in-love returned with me). Another bottle was opened. My temperature descended. The banter and laughter around the table worked its magic. The wine helped too. By the time our friends left, I was too tired to care.

The next morning I surveyed the apartment with fresh eyes. You could tell those girls had a lot of fun while I was gone. They also had a lot to do later when they got home from school. Everybody paid the price for that week off, one way or another.


Mar 20 2009

Ungovernable Pleasure

After visiting the void – at the Centre Pompidou the other day – I strolled by another exhibit that bears mention, a cluttered and eclectic assemblage of found objects donated to the museum by the artist Daniel Cordier. Its position, immediately adjacent to the nine empty rooms of The Void, was striking. These two contrary exhibits, side by side, must have been a deliberate act.

Oh, there was stuff! An odd collection of things, natural and man-made, primitive and contemporary, cast all around, laid out on the floor and set up on musuem-ish stands. Large carved-out tree trunks, actual sugar silos from India, stood like statues on the floor. It was all very woody; I think there were even pieces of driftwood, reminding me of those silly corkscrews we made in Girl Scouts. Mounted on the wall, an array of objects of curiosity, amongst more pictures and drawings of objects of curiosity. Cordier chose to ignore the functionality of these objects and focused instead on their form, making art out of otherwise everyday items. Art that, it could be said, resembles a tag sale.

It was all a bit too interesting to take in, after digesting nine rooms of nothing.

So I turned and quietly walked out. Not in protest, just in preference.

A single sentence, buried in the middle of a text the artist had written to describe the exhibit, mounted just outside of the rooms that hosted his collection is what got my attention. Addressing the haphazard quality of his work, he wrote: “It reflects the ungovernable disorder of pleasure.”
escalator_out
On my way out of the museum, I tried to keep my head in those first empty rooms with their poignant memories and limitless possibility. But thoughts of the other exhibit kept encroaching, stalking me, insisting I consider this notion of pleasure and its chaotic and uncontrollable nature.

The juxtaposition of these two worlds, I realized, is the paradox of my life with children, in a nutshell.


Mar 19 2009

Much Ado About Nothing

This could be just another case of the Emperors new clothes, I told myself, riding up the escalator to see an art exhibit about nothing. De-facto took the girls to the Centre Pompidou to see it at last weekend –- a gesture to give me a few hours of coveted quiet. They returned from the museum, boisterous and enthusiastic. “There were big, empty rooms, and we ran all around,” said Buddy-roo. I gave De-facto a scratching-my-head look. “Go see it,” he said.

“Nothing seems to me to be the most potent thing in the world.” This quote from Robert Barry, an artist featured in the exhibit, “Voids. A Retrospective.” He’s one of nine “radical” artists so fascinated with nothing that they all created exhibitions made up of completely empty spaces.
vide_voids1
The exhibit is just that: nine consecutive empty rooms. In the corridor, large panels of text describe the story of each artist’s dance with nothing. My favorite was Laurie Parsons, who in 1990 decided not to present anything for her third solo exhibition. She sent out invitations with the gallery address, but without her name or the date of the show. Eventually, she even deleted this show from her resumé, nearly erasing any trace of its existence. To respect her intentions, the exhibit literature reads, “the room devoted to her exhibition has no label.”

Because there is nothing to absorb the sound, a room with nothing in it is filled with a great quantity of noise. My footsteps echoed brightly against the empty walls. A row of spotlights hanging from the ceiling pointed at nothingdoorways1 along each wall. Without paintings or fixtures to absorb or deflect the light, it was almost blinding. I noticed, for the first time -– and I’m no stranger to this museum — the raw pattern of the parquet floors. Without anything in it, I saw the room for real: small imperfections in the walls, scuff marks on the floor, a lonely wire hanging from the ceiling.

I looked around at all the nothing. And then, something came to me.

A memory of another room –- an almost empty one -– in a building I once inhabited a long time ago, a renovated schoolhouse with long windows and cathedral ceilings. The rooms of the apartment were open to each other and filled with light. I remember just days after moving in, the man I lived with surprised me with a silver ten-speed bicycle for my birthday. We had only a few pieces of furniture, a handmade Shaker table, sideboard and a desk. I jumped on the bike right away and rode it around inside the apartment, a thin imprint from the tires marking a trail in the new carpet. When he wasn’t looking I took off all my clothes and rode the bicycle around in a circle again, in the nude, just to make him laugh. I remember how when he saw me, his head fell back and bounced upright again with a wide smile.

Well there’s a memory that came out of nowhere.

Whenever I walk through a museum, a blanket of quiet concentration wraps around me. As my eye is drawn to each work of art, the clutter of the day-to-day recedes from view, and a calm, focused state of mind sets in. It’s
room_door1like drinking a dose of culture, a thick and nourishing, aesthetic milkshake.

I found myself again in that art-altered state, but it was different. With nothing on the walls or in the empty room to draw my attention, my attention turned inward, to my own things, to my own empty.

The four bare walls in the next room stared me down, and even though they were of the same chalky white plaster as the first room, and the wood was the same strip-floor pattern, this empty room was different.

I thought about joining the empty room with my empty head. But I could not — as someone more disciplined at meditation would — turn away all the images that came to me. They seemed too precious, little gifts presented to me in empty boxes. Like the one I gave to my sister, when I was old enough to think of giving her a present for her birthday, but too young to have the means to purchase anything. I rummaged through the store of boxes my mother had stacked in the back room and found a small, square, white box with a thin bed of white cotton inside. I wrapped the box. My sister opened it, guessing, probably, as she tugged at the ribbon, that it was empty. How she marveled at the imaginary item, treating it as though it was the most treasured gift she’d ever received.
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Given the excess of this decade, fueled by the shallow economy of obsolescence and the coercive vanity-inducing power of the media, an art exhibit about nothing feels like a vacation from the obligations of consumerism. Without the clutter of things, there is room to think, or room to unthink. And room to remember. There is room to count what matters. There is an unburdening.

Robert Barry described nothing as a way to be “free for a moment to think about what we are going to do.”

Another one of the empty rooms reminded me of a moment last summer. We’d cleared out our apartment – no small task with two small children – to re-plaster and re-paint after a particularly grueling roof repair that had lasted too long and damaged the ceiling in every room. When the painters were finally done, De-facto and I laid on the floor of our empty living room, holding hands and staring up at the pristine ceiling while the children ran around us in wide, noisy circles. Only the largest pieces of furniture remained in the room, draped in plastic. All the carpets had been rolled up and the little side-tables and child-sized chairs had been evacuated. An entire wall of shelves had been cleared out, all the books and pictures and objets d’art packed away in brown cardboard boxes. I felt no urgency to move the furniture back, or to unpack those cartons and restore the room to its cluttered, lived-in state. I liked its new wide-openness.

Later, two friends happened by, in the neighborhood taking their fresh new baby for a walk. We got the idea to call our friends Lucy and Ricky from downstairs, and an impromptu pasta dinner party ensued. I remember sitting at that festive table –- set up smack in the center of what was an otherwise empty room -– watching my children and listening to my friends. I remember wondering if I had the courage to never unpack those boxes, if I could just leave them and let the room rest. Empty of all the objects that I’ve acquired, there’d be nothing to distract me from what is most essential: family, friends, food and wine. Nothing beats that.