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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Wheatstacks and Wordstacks

I stood face to face with it. It. The real thing, signature at bottom left. The canvas touched by his brushes one hundred and sixteen years ago. The pink snow, the pale blue shadows, the ordinary-looking reddish-brown wheat. I stood in front of it and nothing much happened. I was trying to make it happen, stir up some feeling of the sublime somewhere under my breast bone. But I failed. And moved on, carried by the crowd -– to van Gogh’s irises, Degas’s crippled bather, and to El Greco’s crucified body of Christ lit from behind by a grayish white tear in a black sky. All the real thing, and all left my heart cold. It was my mind that was on fire. I kept speaking to myself, silently: this is a Monet; this is a Degas, this is a van Gogh, this is an El Greco. I read ravenously the explicatory notes at the sides of the paintings. I examined the brushstrokes, though I know nothing about brush strokes, thought about the composition of the painting, tried to decipher its symbols. I couldn’t stay in that uncomfortable, chaotic place of simply seeing.

Last Saturday I went to the Getty Museum with my sister. It shakes up my world, going to a museum. There’s such a strange mixture of intensity and lightness –- masterpieces inside, the unbearable weight of beauty, and outside children skipping about, laughter at the café tables, a boy with a t-shirt that reads Hello I’m Trouble, my sister’s head of dark, unruly curls glinting in the sun. The absolutely astounding and the trivial co-existing like this in the space of one morning and one afternoon, in the space of my conscious mind. How to eat potato chips after you’ve seen El Greco’s crucifixion?

My sister went to Italy for two weeks in February. She took about eight hundred pictures. I see this as her way to deal with the sublime that cannot be contained or comprehended. I don’t know how people bear to go on month-long tours of Europe, stuff themselves with culture willy-nilly, the way geese are stuffed with grain to fatten up their livers for foie gras. I don’t understand how a heart and mind can remain whole passing through Paris and Venice, London and Vienna, Madrid and Berlin. Or is this what’s supposed to happen, for the heart and the mind to become unraveled somewhat, for the fragments of yourself to be rearranged after an experience like this?

I’m making my way through the Oxford Book of American Poetry, and the same danger lurks on its pages, of losing your mental footing among the sheer mass of marvelous words. Theodore Roethke writes about “bacterial creepers/Wriggling through wounds/Like elvers in ponds,/Their wan mouths kissing the warm sutures,/Cleaning and caressing,/Creeping and healing.” (“The Minimal”). Not long ago I learned the science of this process, but to see it in a poem, the idea shaped by the rhythm of each line -– that is something worth living for. Elizabeth Bishop writes about wondering, at seven, why she is: “But I felt: you are an I,/you are an Elizabeth,/you are one ofthem./Why should you be one, too?/I scarcely dared to look/to see what it was I was.” (“In the Waiting Room”). I have to remember this when I am sad and nothing seems to matter. It’s not that poetry creates meaning; it’s not that it offers explanations. It just looks intensely, with utmost concentration, at what is, and it says: what is is enough.