Mar 31 2013

And in the End

I’d given up being organized by the time I got to this part of the Camino. At the beginning, I had to think through my itinerary in order to squeeze it into our family schedule and wrap it around my birthday celebration. But during these last two weeks I was very much in the groove of landing where I landed, sorting out stopping points and sleeping accommodations when it was time to stop or time to sleep. I had all my gear all the time – despite the pre-Camino back injury I never needed to use a bag transport service – this meant I was at liberty to call it a day, or continue on, whenever I wanted.
menacing_sky
After Santiago, I’d heard, there were fewer places to stay and many might still be closed for the winter. I called ahead to a guest house/albergue in Augapesada, 11k from Santiago, to be sure it was open. This would be a respectable distance to walk given a mid-afternoon departure after the pilgrim’s mass. The sky was a threatening shade of gray, and I wanted some assurance of a bed under dry cover. The next option wouldn’t be for another 10k and I wouldn’t make it there before it was dark. I’m told you can always knock on any door that has a shell on it, along the route, to ask for help,or shelter. I think that’s to be saved for a real emergency, not for poor planning.

The gray clouds turned out to be much more than threatening and I arrived at the front door of the albergue thoroughly soaked, apologizing to the proprietor for the mud I was about to drag in. He was unperturbed about my wet backpack and my dirty boots, and showed me not to a room of bunk beds, but to a room with a princess canopy hanging from the ceiling, draped over a big bed with a thick, quilted cover. After a hot shower, I was invited to make myself at home in the salon in front of the fire while his wife did my laundry and cooked me dinner. I ended up being the only boarder that night, and it felt a little bit like I was in the tender care of surrogate parents.

The next morning, my host asked how I’d slept. “Como los meurtos,” I said. Like the dead.

Apropos, since this part of the Spain is called Costa da Morte, or the death coast. The pagans believed that this is where souls went before ascending into heaven. Before Columbus and Magellan proved that the earth was round, it was believed that this was the end of the world, and to go out to sea beyond the horizon would mean sailing over the edge to your death, the ultimate end.

I was merely prolonging my ending, continuing from Santiago to Finisterre. I knew another end was in sight, at the coast, but I also knew it would take a few more days of walking to accept it. That’s the thing about poles_markerendings, they’re hard to accept. Even when you know what’s next. At the end of a trip, you’re sad that it’s over, but you know what you have to do: go home, do your laundry, get back into your routine. When you finish a big project, you grieve at the end of it, even if you’re a bit relieved. Maybe you don’t exactly know what’s ahead but you have an idea, and soon enough the next assignment, vague at first, takes shape. But when you come to the end of your life, you don’t know what’s next. Is there a heaven? A next life? Is it just the end – that’s what my mother thought – before an eternity of nothing?

Funny, this Camino, a religious path for so many people, turned out to be an existential one for me. Someway along the way, between O Cebreiro and Portomarín, I kind of wanted to know, like, why we’re here.

I’m not the first to ask this question and I won’t be the last. And it’s not that I haven’t asked it before, although I’d wager it was a more intellectual query. This time it had a different timbre. Walk 500 miles across the north of Spain, you have some time to think, maybe about things you thought before, but you think about them longer because you don’t get interrupted. This presents an opportunity to pursue a string of thoughts much further than usual. And that’s how I got here, during the last days into Santiago and the days beyond, toward Finisterre, with this what’s the meaning of it all story. I imagine this sounds ridiculous and navel gazing to those of you reading this, but truly, you do get a little crazy, walking for fifteen days by yourself.

Maybe it was the rain. After five rainy days in a row, even though I’d surrendered to it, even though I didn’t even try to stay dry, even though I knew everything I was wearing would be soaking wet by the time I got where I was going, I still had to ask myself, why are you doing this? I suppose with so much time to think about it, that very simple why expands to a larger, metaphorical and then metaphysical why. Every step I’ve taken from the French border to the coast of Spain is very meaningful to me now. But in a hundred years, nobody will know or care. In the end, what’s the point? Why are we doing this walk on the planet? Why do we even bother?
camino_cross
The religious view on this, one I respect as comforting to many but unsatisfying to me, attributes it to the will of a higher being. But why? The reincarnationists would have that we live over and over again to learn our life lessons. But why? Scientists say we are the product of a big bang that over billions of years led to life forms that crawled out of the muck and evolved into the sentient creatures we have become. But why? No matter which I might believe or understand to be true, the reason for the time spent on this earth – at least for me – is still unanswered.

This isn’t the question I started out with, in those early, organized days of the Camino, when I wanted to walk and think about how to make the most of the rest of my life after a milestone birthday. I imagined that the question would evolve, and it’s true that several questions emerged along the way. But the more time that passed, and the more I played by this land where you land playbook, the more I landed back this unanswerable question.

I walked 90 more kilometers beyond Santiago, more than half of that in the rain, the other half with the threat of rain. I slept in a damp, drafty, heatless albergue, on a bunk crammed in a room of snoring, coughing pilgrims. I found dryer, comfortable shelter, too, like the one with the princess curtain, or another, where I was all by myself in a room of eight beds. I navigated trails of deep mud, hopped over puddles nearly the size of a pond. I walked alone the entire time, the only pilgrims I passed, but for those I met at the albergues, were the ones coming the other way, returning to Santiago. This was the perhaps the most isolated leg of my entire trip. I experienced moments of private euphoria as never before, and moments of aloneness that were neither good nor bad, just profound. Every night I was relieved to remove my pack and take off my boots. Every morning, champing at the bit to put my pack back together and and set off for the next day’s walk.
careful_on_the_moors
I landed in Finesterre on Good Friday. I crossed the moors that morning in the fog. I could smell and hear the ocean before I could see it. As I descended the wet, sandy and rocky slopes to the coast, the Camino gave me a last rain shower to make sure I got wet, one final involuntary baptism. That night the procession of the Saints, the Spanish tradition for celebrating Easter, passed by the window of my pensión, a parade of cloaks and hoods carrying saints and crosses like a funeral march to mark the end that comes before a new beginning.

The next morning, a huge surprise and a great gift, outside my window: sunshine. The real deal, with blue sky and good clouds, the kind that don’t portend imminent rain. This morning’s walk a very quick jaunt, just three kilometers to the tip of the cape of Finisterre, truly the end of the (old) world. I found a smoother rock amongst those on the craggy cliff and sat on it, thinking, meditating, talking to myself, watching the surf crash against the shore. So violent, its arrival, as if the water itself was surprised to encounter this outcropping of land.

It was still early. I was ahead of the tour buses that, in a few hours time, would crowd the parking lot on the other side of the lighthouse. I sat alone on those rocks for a good half an hour before a few random pilgrims came along – some I recognized from these last days on the route – and found their own perch. Quietly together, we looked out at the horizon.
surf_at_finisterre
At the end of it all, there, looking out at the ocean, I could only shrug at this notion of why. I never came to a definitive answer. But there’s another question, the one that follows naturally, one that absolutely did get answered for me during my walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I may not know why we walk this earth, but I think I know how:

Go a little bit slower so you don’t step in the mud. Look up, so you don’t miss the beauty. Smile whenever you can, it’s contagious. Be kind, kinder still to those who aren’t; they need it the most. If you need to be snarky (because it is therapeutic) do it under your breath. Take everything that is offered to you and be prepared to give away what you have, because other stuff will come. Figure out how, even if it’s hard, to be grateful. It’s better for you than being angry.

Throughout the Camino, but especially here, at this ending point, I couldn’t help but think about my parents. They both loved to travel, and though they never would have endeavored this pilgrimage themselves, they would have appreciated my journey, my mother especially. I wished I could see her and tell her about it. And I knew that if I was missing my mother that much, my little girls were probably missing me something fierce, too. It was time now, I knew, for me to go home.

I pushed myself up off that rock, my perch at the end of the Camino and the end of the world, and picked up my pack and my poles, and made my way back to town, and the next day, back to Paris, to my man and my girls, to see if I could practice what I preach. This time, though, I did look back, so I wouldn’t forget how far I’d come.


Aug 20 2011

Keeping and Telling

“Don’t worry, it’s locked from the inside.” I heard Buddy-roo from behind the closed door. “No-one can come in. Our secret will be safe.”

The authority in her voice quieted her sister and her cousin, both girls older than her, but in this case, entirely compliant. I stepped to the side so I wouldn’t be visible through the crack beneath the door.

Were they doing something forbidden? Should I hover and try to hear what they’re up to? Should I knock and make my presence known and see if their response is a welcoming invitation or the sounds of scurrying about to hide something? If their secret involved some kind of contraband, it would likely be something evil only to their teeth, like sugar packets or stolen cookies. I couldn’t imagine a dangerous secret being harbored behind that closed door, so I let the girls have their little private moment. I continued up the stairs of this enormous, several-storied and multi-decked rental house that’s ours for the week, and said nothing about it, not to De-facto nor to anyone in his family who’s here with us. (Later I was told, unsolicited, how they’d been initiating their cousin into the secret fairy circle, affirming my hunch.)

In a few years, when they are outright teenagers, I could make the very same call and pass by that closed door only to miss the fact that they are piercing their own bellybuttons or cutting lines of cocaine on a mirror. I wasn’t much older than them when I went through a phase of smoking cigarette butts under the bathroom fan. Who knows what mischief is ahead for them – and what headaches for me – and whether I’ll choose to knock on the door and intervene, or walk on by.

~ ~ ~

The jet lag means I wake earlier than the rest of the household, so while De-facto’s family sleeps, I rise and turn on the coffee pot that my mother-in-love set up as good-to-go the night before. I write in my journal, catch up on some blog reading, attend to email, all before 7 am. Short-pants was up early this morning, too, so we walked down to the beach and took a stroll along the shoreline, pressing our bare feet into the wet sand just at the point where the sea water stretches its webbed fingers before it ebbing back into the ocean. We held hands and said nothing, partially because it’s hard to hear each other over the sound of the surf, partially because we had nothing to say.

Not far from the steep wooden stairs that lead to and from the beach, we found several empty canvas chairs left out in front of one of the beachfront homes. Since we were not yet ready to return to our house and the people who by now would be up and about making more coffee and eating cereal, we sat in them and watched the surf. Short-pants carved shapes in the sand with her nimble toes.

“What are you thinking about in your mind?” This is something my father used to say to me, just to make conversation.

“Nothing,” she said.

This is not her typical response. She usually volunteers some tidbit of information: a joke she made up, a poem she’s writing, a counting game she’s playing in her head.

I didn’t press her. The question is slightly impertinent and I never really expect an answer. Only now that I hadn’t been given one, I wondered if this is possibly the beginning of the unraveling that will occur between us, part of the necessary uncoupling of mother and child. The tell-all intimacy I’ve enjoyed up until now will take a hiatus for those teenage years, still far away but snarling at me from the future, like a secret behind a closed door.

~ ~ ~

Don’t we all have the right to some private thoughts? Our secrets, benign or malevolent, are the things that keep us company in our isolated moments. The private thoughts we keep to ourselves contribute to the richness of our inner lives. I cannot know everything my daughters are thinking and feeling, as curious as I am. Just as I have a need for my own private thoughts, they must, too. This is all part of letting go the reins, the walking the talk part of meaning it when I say, and I often do, that they’re just guests in my house.

I had a number of secrets from my mother. Maybe not deliberately hidden secrets, but things that never seemed necessary to mention. Not because I didn’t love her or trust her, not that I didn’t want her to know who I was. When I was a grown woman I tried to tell her more than she wanted to know. (She was expert at changing the subject.) But during the delicate sequence of tender teen years, and up to and through college, I cherished my secrets. They separated me from her, distinguished me within my family. They were rarely of any consequence: some boy I’d dated, some recreational drug I’d tried but didn’t care to use again, a class I’d opted to take pass/fail. Driving down to this beach house (we’re at the Outer Banks) I recalled a spring break where my friends and I did a drive-away to deliver a car in Florida without any inkling of how we might get actually get back to school in Rhode Island. (We ended up, miraculously, running into some classmates we vaguely knew and they let us make the 24-hour return-trip in the back of their station wagon.) My parents never knew about this.

There are probably hundreds of little stories like this – not bad, not good, just things I knew that they didn’t. There was never any real reason to tell them.

~ ~ ~

In the taxi on the way from Paris to the airport, the driver, a chocolate skinned man with an elegant West African accent, watched in his rear view mirror as I conversed with the girls. They had asked me a question about the riots in London and I attempted to answer in a way that gave them enough information to address their question but didn’t over-explain. Later he said, “Your children listen very attentively to you. You must tell them all that you really want them to know, now, while their ears are still open. Then it will remain firmly inside them, in the coming years, when they cease to listen to you so closely.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this little gem of advice, how it could be that there is a window of time to plant the words and ideas that might reinforce their future character and the decisions they make. They still listen to me now, but soon enough they’ll stop, just as they’ll stop talking and telling me things, too. And before you know it, they’ll grow into young women with secrets of their own, possibly with rich inner lives, and hopefully a few good stories to tell.


Apr 19 2010

The Sound of Chaos

While volcanic ash reached across Europe like a gray blanket, I was nearly oblivious to it, sequestered with colleagues and friends who meet every year to attend an annual European Creativity Conference known as CREA. Last year, I was here without De-facto and the girls, and though the week was filled with planning and preparing and running an intense core program, I still had room to connect with old friends and colleagues who, like me, return to CREA each year. I had time to breathe around the edges.

But this year, I arrived à la masse. Suitcases packed haphazardly, things I’d hoped to plan in advance were left to plan on the fly. I even forgot my rings and my watch – always present on my hands and wrist – at home by the bathroom sink. It took almost the entire 10-hour drive through France and into Italy to recover from our chaotic departure.

Not that this is so very unusual. Just watch me run around like a frenzied woman most days of my life. Pursued by a to-do list that stalks me – my own ugly shadow creeping behind my back with Sharpie in hand, adding small boxes to the bottom of the Post-it notes strewn about my life. Despite any determination to be grounded and centered and somehow effortlessly juggling it all, I am too often hurrying. I am too greedy; I want to experience all the interesting invitations life offers. I forget the limits of my stamina.

Chaos

My colleague brought a recording he’d made, one that suggested the sound of chaos. We used it in our workshop, for an exercise about sound, silence and memory. The sound was a dissonant mash-up of noise, primordial, and lacking order or pattern. Still within it I could find some sporadic harmonic quality. It was a music that asked nothing of me, but rather, for a those moments that I closed my eyes and let it fill up my chattering mind, the sound of chaos pushed all those busy thoughts out and left me with the temporary calm that I seem always to yearn for. Could chaos be useful?

Silence

How scarce is silence. Rare and almost impossible. It is no wonder I am so distracted. I can close and cover my eyes to be in darkness, but it is impossible to be in absence of sound. A tone rings and finishes but the white noise of the background persists; the ventilation, the cars outside driving by with their aggressive engines, muffled but audible. Each building has its own hums and hems and haws. The noise of the world around us is relentless. We are never left in peace.

Except my mother, who lived for the last half of her life with a significant hearing loss. What was her silence like? Was it quieter than mine? And why didn’t I ever ask her this question?

Memory

The sound of the furnace in my childhood home, revisited this winter as I slept on the couch beside my mother. The familiar cadence as the motor kicked in and buzzed and vibrated the walls, a noisy old engine heating the tired old house that protects my memories. Another memory marked by sound: that of an iron releasing steam as it is set upright, the rhythm and moan of my mother’s ironing. All these sound-ful memories to do with my mother. Is this natural, because she’s gone? Or is much of memory to do with the maternal?

Which makes me wonder what will be the sound of the memories I leave to my daughters? Will it be the sound of my chaos?


Sep 19 2009

Rear View Mirror

I used to be somebody.

I had a job – okay maybe not a big fat job, but a little fat job – with an uplifting title and a salary that seemed to me handsomer than I’d expected for that stage of my life. I had a secretary, employees who wanted to please me, colleagues who cared what I thought, and a few fans in the business who were happy to run into me at conventions. I left a tiny mark on an industry – a pinky print on a short period of its history, but nonetheless, I did one or two notable things.

Because my neck and shoulders used to hurt from too much telephone time, I wore a headset, making it impossible for my staff to know if I was actually on the phone or not. I preferred to keep my office door open, so my assistant made a changeable plaque for my desk that read NOW or NOT NOW, to silently inform people of my availability to converse. My office was a corner one, not as large as the other older executives – and admittedly it came with a view of a depressed New England city – but it was a light, bright office, and I was happy for all the glass, which I used to tally the performance of the sales people in the division on what we called the Window of Opportunity.

But the wanderlust started singing its siren song, rustling up the restlessness in me, beckoning me to quit my job and the up-and-coming life I had perfunctorily choreographed for myself. “You’ve got the coolest job,” people said, “how can you leave?” It was hard to explain that the consequences of not leaving had surpassed those of leaving, as scary as it was.

What followed was weird and wonderful; to stow my belongings and move to Europe, to be in my thirties and yet footloose, like a college student without a college. No job. No man. No itinerary. No dependents. I was a professional vagabond. Or at least that was my response to people asking that rather uninventive question, “and what do you do?”

I did this flittering about thing for just enough time to run out of money, and then (luckily) found myself in career-step again, in the same industry but on a different (and desired) coast of the Atlantic, bouncing around European capitals. But then, like Ground Hog Day, once again the restlessness took hold. So I stepped off the hamster wheel, again.
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And well here I am. I don’t have to go to an office every day. I am more in control of my time than my friends with regular full-time jobs. I schedule long vacations when I want. I choose to accept assignments, or not. I work with a cool network of colleagues, so I still get the best of the team thing, but sans all the baloney.

I’m a working mother on my own terms; I was home when they were babies and now I’m home – more often than not – when the kids come home from school. I witnessed all the firsts, first hand (well except this one). Plus there’s this: I have time to fart around. You know, the sort of puttering not really doing anything but kind of reading maybe daydreaming, thinking about whatever, Walter Mitty-ish, distracted way of wasting time? I actually get to do a bit of that.

This is the part where I’m supposed to crow about how leaving the corporate grind was a redefining, liberating moment from which the good fortune of my life has been launched. I’m supposed to brag about how I’m so much happier now, without those external pressures, the full-on job, the bullshit of the corporate world. I’m supposed to say my life is exponentially improved and that quitting that job was the best thing I ever did, for me and well certainly – cue the trumpet fanfare – for my children.

Except there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t wonder if it was the right choice. I miss some parts of that previous incarnation of me, despite my smug satisfaction about how sweet things have turned out. God knows I miss the secretary. But I also miss the brain-jolt that comes from working with a cohesive team, every day. I miss the camaraderie of pulling together to meet that weekly deadline, or face a tough first quarter, or celebrate a we-pulled-it-off performance. I miss the status – there I said it – of having a few initials by my name and the doors that opened to me as a result. I miss the truly disposable income that comes from a steady and hearty paycheck, you know, higher thread-counts and other little luxuries of life that aren’t must-have but sure are nice-to-have.
yin-yang-man
So did I make the right choice? Have I made a mistake? Or is this questioning simply a natural reaction, at this middle-ish point of my life, to reflect upon the choices I’ve made and experience the reward and regret associated with paths both chosen and un-chosen?

I have friends who’ve done well. They get profiled in the Alumni magazine. They appear in stories above the fold on the front page of the New York Times. They’ve made a major lasting impact in their fields. They live in apartments with foyers larger than my bedroom, or designer homes built with the profit from stocks I opted to sell so I could move abroad. Funny that it’s often when I think about these more traditionally successful people that the pangs for what I didn’t do seem fiercer. Then I saw this thoughtful post by Tim Kreider for the New York Times’ Blog, Happy Days. He calls this phenomenon the referendum, a (mostly, but not entirely) midlife examination, driven by the realization that time and choices are running out and as we take a measure of ourselves, we can’t help but make a comparison to our peers.

It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

Satisfaction alternating with dissatisfaction passes over me like ocean waves. One day I’m winning, perfectly delighted with the quasi-bohemian freedom of my life. The next day, I wonder if having and doing those other things would have made life easier or more enjoyable.

And some days I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off without kids. About this, Kreider writes:

Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.

I can imagine my life without them. I can imagine the things I’d do on a whim. I can imagine empty, quiet weekends and uninterrupted conversations. But I didn’t choose a childless life, just as I didn’t choose the corporate life. And though I keep doing it, I know that looking back to evaluate these choices is not a particularly productive use of my time. There’s no do-over, Kreider reminds us, “Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control.”

So I march forward, an anonymous person with a busy-lazy life, with two children who fill me up as much as they wear me out. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter which choices I made, as long as I own up to them and play them out fully, without the nagging voice of remorse – just the occasional, curious, mindful glance in the rear view mirror.

But let me just say this: I really really miss my secretary.


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.
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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.
people_window
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.