Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Monday, September 22, 2008

When Heaven Feels Like Hell

Someone asked me recently what it means to be a Pagan. I don't really know the answer to that question objectively. But personally, it means to revere all of nature, to find God in each and every tree, rock, person, work of art, building, everything. There are certain places, people, things, however, that glow more acutely, that bring me closer to the sense of Heaven and the divine in the everyday world.

Any place with a painting by Van Gogh is my idea of Heaven.

So it was with great anticipation that I went today to MOMA to see the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit. I was, at one o'clock, in a very good mood. I had slept in, my stomach was feeling better after a bit of bug, and my day was ripe for a little liaison with my favorite painter. On the way up to the museum I had crossed police barricades, heard the sound of angry protests getting under way as the UN began it's Fall session a few blocks away, but I'd also been granted a "bless you" by a passing stranger when I sneezed on my way across the street, and those small kindnesses count a lot in a big city.

When I arrived at MOMA I waited in a short line and was told by the very grumpy young man at the ticket counter that I could not get into the Van Gogh exhibit for another 3 hours.

I asked if I could buy a ticket for Wednesday.

No advance tickets.

I wondered if I should come back another time anyway and inquired whether he thought the lines would die down after a few days.

He promptly informed that, "it was going to be like this for the rest of my life." I said, "Boy, you're having a rough day aren't you?" (When a customer service person is snarky with me I employ this tactic of being sympathetic with their plight, and they usually brighten up....not this guy.) "I've been yelled at, harassed, complained to...this was a very bad idea!"

I can only surmise that he meant Van Gogh was a bad idea. I took my ticket and wished him the best possible day he could have, under the circumstances.

I then went into the museum. I ate some lunch. I went up to look at the painting galleries. Much to my delight, the general collection at MOMA holds some of my favorite works by Monet, Matisse, Kandinsky, Klimt, Joseph Cornell, Edward Hopper. I generally avoid the modern museums because I'm not one to go in for Pop Art or abstract stuff. So it was with surprise and glee that I began to explore. Very soon, though, my mood began to shift. All around me patrons were taking digital photos of the paintings, some used their flashes, which is strictly a no-no. Flash or no, these picture takers were not actually stopping to look at the paintings with their own eyes.

I first noticed this behavior in Paris the last time I visited Le Musee D'Orsay. That day I left sobbing after only spending a relative few minutes trying to glimpse my friends Van Gogh, Redon, Klimt, all the other beauties through hordes of people with their digital cameras dangling within inches of the center of paintings, cameras blocking anyone else from actually taking in the whole canvass.

"Buy the postcard, people!!!"

That's what I want to yell...."BUY THE FUCKING POSTCARD!!!!" And take the time, here, now, while you have it to actually look at the painting through your eyes, look at it with your heart and soul and find out if that picture speaks to you, what might it be saying. Don't just rack up the famous-painting notches on your belt. Van Gogh's Starry Night-Check....Monet's Water Lilies-check.check check check...

I almost had a nervous breakdown today in front of an Edward Hopper piece. When I lived in Chicago I used to go almost weekly to the Art Institute to look at Hopper's Nighthawks.

This was in the day when that gem of a canvass had it's own wall and a bench right in front and I would sit there for an hour and just dive into the painting. My friend Joe and I did a movement piece based on it I really did get to bring it to life....

Here is the painting from today....very moody, the paint looking as if it has barely dried. In person, it is so luminous. Well this man sidles up next to me and takes a flash photo. At this point I have held my tongue at least 100 times, so I can't take it any more and I say, "You know you aren't supposed to take flash harms the paint." He say, "yeah, yeah, yeah..." and takes another photo. Fucker! It was all I could do not to tackle him and smash his camera against the wall....

By the time 4 o'clock rolled around and I was allowed into the Van Gogh exhibit I was shaking. I kept telling myself to take a deep breath and just enjoy. I always feel like Vincent and I are having some kind of affair...his paintings are so alive, so insistent. I have this visceral feeling that he is reaching out into me and I into him. I imagine he is having an affair with countless others as well, so I try to be respectful of the other museum goers.

Fortunately they do not allow cameras at all into the special exhibits. So I was able to get a little one on one time with some of the lesser paintings. But when it came to the masterpieces, we all had to share. For the most part everyone was very civilized about it. Until we all turned a corner and there was Starry Night. It was here that some old guy decided he deserved a better spot than me and started pushing me out of the way...subtly...but deliberately....until I was stuck squarely behind another man with a large head who was right in front of the center of the painting.

Let me make it clear, I was not in a great spot to begin with. I was a row of people away from the wall. I was off to the side, but I had a clear shot between the heads of people in front of me. And I was not blocking anyone else.

Well, I was flabbergasted.

As I tried not to scream out into the void (which Vincent probably would have applauded, by the way) the man in front of me vacated his spot. Then, as the bully who'd maneuvered me out of the way started to trade in his already great spot for the one in front of me, I boldly stepped forward, blocked his way and took center stage in the light of this painting.

I was not proud of myself. But I had a few moments with the canvass of my dreams....and I didn't end up in jail for decking an old guy with an out-dated sense of entitlement.

I left MOMA sad. My day in Heaven had turned into it's own little Hell.

I walked out into the streets of Mid-Town Manhattan where police men with assault riffles stood ready to protect the diplomats of the world, where bankers at Morgan Stanley, Lehmann Brothers and all the rest struggle with the fall of the American economic system, and I felt ashamed. I'd been in the presence of beauty today and I'd gotten a little more ugly.

I don't have an epiphany about all this to share with you. Just the tale. Take whatever meaning you want from it.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Why I Heart the 23rd St. Subway Station

I'm a big general...of a subway station, be it in New York, Chicago, Paris, even London...I probably would have liked the stations in Rome, had I decided to take the train instead of stubbornly walking all over the place, mostly in circles....

I liken my love of subway stations to a similar affinity I have for farmer's markets or street fairs. There is a sense of community, of life being lived unselfconsciously when people are hustling and bustling from one train to another, or out buying their weekly groceries. Granted, down in the bowels of some big city it doesn't often smell as clean and delicious as your neighborhood farmer's market, but there is usually a musician serenading commuters, just as there might be one busking out on the street during a fair....and I'm a sucker for good music found in unexpected places....

Over the years I've developed fondnesses for particular subways stops.

I've got a few favorite Metro stops in Paris, one I wrote about at length because my family went there often. If you want to read that post you can go here...I love that station not for what is inside, but what is outside: a view of the Eiffel Tower unlike any other. There is another station whose interior makes me smile...that one is tiled all over it's walls and arched ceiling with bright orange tiles...burnt orange everywhere you look. Then there is the simple fact that Paris metro stations just smell better than ones in other cities do, don't ask me why, cuz I haven't a clue.

I ran into a friend from college once at a Chicago train stop about 15 years ago. I was going into the "L" on Armitage, and he was coming out. He said, "Morgan, oh my God, I just had the best dream about you. I'm in a rush, so I'll tell you about it later." When I finally got in touch with him again through facebook a few months ago, he actually remembered running into me all those years ago, remembered telling me he'd had a dream, but he couldn't remember what it was. That meeting and that station are clearly imprinted on my brain, as if I'd just run into my friend yesterday.

Subway stations are good for that kind of thing: chance encounters. Metro platforms hold opportunities to unexpectedly share a moment with a long lost friend....or to speak to a handsome stranger who caught your eye.....But most of us choose to rush on to the next destination...completely unaware that this might be the last time we ever see a certain someone or travel to that spot. Commuters on subways, it seems to me, are daily choosing whether to stop and speak to the beautiful stranger or to hurry on their pre-determined course, leaving them fantasizing for years to come about that mysterious person, with the eyes, and the smile and the sweet way he said, "Bon Vacance."

Subways take you all over a city, rumbling beneath landmarks, palaces, and people you long to meet. Often we use them to get from one spot we already know to another spot we know, and we never investigate the landscape in between.

We rumble through stations that sometimes have enticing or exotic names. For instance, my brother once lived in Queens...I don't remember which stop we got off to visit him, but I do know that it was one stop past "Bliss." I rather thought he'd missed the mark there...always getting off one stop PAST bliss. But I was just a kid then, what did I know.

Other stations, most in New York, as far as I can tell, have simple numbers attached to "street" or "avenue". Now when I visit my brother I get off at 96th Street. It is important, I have learned, to specify that this is 96th Street on the 1,2, or 3 line. There is nothing special about this stop, except that my family lives 4 blocks away which, I guess, is really special enough.

My new all time favorite subway stop is also a simple "Street", 23rd Street. This is on the N, R, and W line. Until this afternoon, I had never actually gotten off the train at 23rd Street. I'd breezed through it several times on the Q train. But that is all I'd needed to see to fall in love...the magic, for me, is actually in the breeze by.

You see this station, like many others in New York, has been newly re-tiled and mosaic-ed. The walls are mostly a bright white tile, very clean, very stark. But all along the walls at random heights are mosaics of various hats from days gone by which look as if they have all blown out of a hat shop and are flying down the underground street. This is fairly whimsical to begin with, but then when you add commuters standing and sitting along the walls, all unaware that there are magical hats above their heads....well, to those of us in the passing train who bother to look out the windows, we are treated to the vision of various modern day people wearing crazy hats, or people standing around non-chalantly unaware that they are in a wind-storm and their fancy chapeaus have just blown off their heads. It is utterly delightful! Ordinary folk are transformed into characters out of some surreal Fellini-esque street scene.

I stopped at 23rd street today to try and get a picture of the effect. I wasn't very successful, but here are a few feeble glimpses.

I recently asked people on facebook to guess why the 23rd St. Station might be my favorite. They told me all sorts of wonderful things about the landscape above the tracks. The stairs out of that station take a person to the Chelsea Hotel where Mark Twain, among others, lived, the Flat Iron building is nearby, apparently Bob Dylan wrote songs in the immediate vicinity and there's even a song called "23rd St. Lullaby" written by Patti Scialfa. My friend Jeff also informed me that the hats flying on the walls are representations of those worn by actual people and, sure enough, that is true. Mark Twain's hat is there, as is Houdini's, I can't remember who else. I suspect all the people whose hats grace the walls of the 23rd Street station might have lived in the neighborhood or even at the Chelsea Hotel, but that's just my guess. Someday I am gonna get off at 23rd St. and walk up the steps and check out the neighborhood. I promise.

In the meantime, I can't shake the wonder I have about the artist who put those hats up on the walls and knew that his models would be there all day everyday to make the hats come alive. I am so grateful to her for granting me that unexpected surprise, those moments of delight, in the middle of an ordinary commute.

There's another thing too. I've always had a wee bit of prejudice against rushing. I am a firm believer in the health benefits of stopping to smell the flowers. When I like the music in the subway I walk slowly to the platform, I linger, sometimes I even sway my hips and dance a bit. I tend to want to lounge in a moment, especially if it is heavy with connection and feeling and beauty. But I guess sometimes you don't have to stop or even slow down to discover the miraculous in the moment, sometimes it's better to breeze let the eyes linger...and then let the beautiful stranger go....maybe that one moment is as good as it gets....that fleeting jolt of intimacy is all the gift there is...or all the gift you both need....the 23rd St. Station is a living example of loving something and letting it go....and I'm gonna hold onto that lesson and carry it with me for a long time to come.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Staying Present

Okay. I know. I promised you stories from my big European Adventure. And then I came to New York to do a show and life kept happening to me.

I went the other day to Central Park to listen to The Swell Season with my friends Kevin and Jenn, and Jenn told me I had to keep writing. She said she wanted to keep reading my blog. Which was sure nice of her.

So I realized that I'd put myself into a bit of a bind. It seems, thankfully, that life and all it's great little miracles continue to happen back here at home. So I am processing today and thinking that I can only write about yesterday, which is rather ridiculous.

So, I am just going to write and I am pretty sure that as I tell you about the journey as it continues, those delicious tales I promised you from before will find their way into the blog as well. Jenn and all of you who have asked for more. It's nice to have friends to write for.

Mostly, though, it's nice to have friends.