Monday, May 28, 2012

Wild Thing

Nothing I could say about Maurice Sendak, in the wake of his death on May 8, hasn’t already been said.

So instead, I’ll just offer thanks for Max, surely the best-known and best-loved terror-in-training in all of American children’s literature. Without Max, without the Wild Things he sailed off to discover, cavort with, tame, and escape, life would be, if not unthinkable, then hardly worth living. For almost fifty years—since the forest first grew in his room one night in 1963—Max has been there to assure us that there is a love that never ceases to cherish and watch over us—not only despite our Wild Things but somehow, mysteriously, also because of them, for all their terrible roars and terrible claws and terrible teeth. Max is there to remind us that when we need to wear our wolf suit, when we need to make mischief of one sort and another, we won’t undo the world, but make it all the richer as we take the risk of exploring our deeper selves.

(Above left, Max with friends, from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, in fair-use illustration of the above commentary.)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

On Holding One's Lovers Lightly

Recently I walked the beach with a friend. The day was near-perfect: bright sun, a cloudless sky, rolling surf a dozen shades of white and green,more plovers than I think I’ve ever seen running up the sand all together.

We’ve been close the last ten or twelve years. Not many more times than that, we’ve tumbled in and out of bed. Whenever it’s happened, it’s been good for us both, sweet, affirming, affectionate. I have no idea when we’ll see one another again. He’s made a decision about where to go next with his life that quite possibly takes him to the other side of the world for the forseeable future. I’m not convinced that what he’s chosen is a great idea. I stuck my oar in some time ago to tell him so. I gather several other friends later echoed what I’d said.

He turned over some alternative ideas during the winter, then decided, he told me a few weeks back, to go ahead with his original plan. I find it way too easy to offer unsollicited advice, but I’m glad to say I fought back the impulse and did my best to listen supportively. If my fears for him are misplaced, he doesn’t need me sapping his declared excitement and enthusiasm. If they aren’t, it’s not my hunch but what he learns of himself that will bring him out the other side of the experience. It’s only the knowledge that rises from within us that counts in the end.

My deep-running desire to be right, to see farther, isn’t about my love for this man, but about an impulse to colonize him, to treat his soul as though it were my own territory. I’m not happy to think how long it’s taken me to realize this, how often I have to learn it again: looking out together hand in hand at the light glinting off the ocean is better than holding up a map to announce with authority, “here we are.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Claiming the Story

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52, New Revised Standard Version)

The best thing I did last week was hand a few people a pair of scissors and encourage them to cut up the Bible.

It took an hour to work up to it. We’d been reading the story of Jesus healing a blind beggar named Bartimaeus on his way out of Jericho in Mark 10.

We gathered as queer and queer-positive readers and listeners around a sacred text. We weren’t asking for permission to enter. We weren’t interested (at least not for the moment) in “what the Bible really says about homosexuality,” and we certainly weren’t setting out to argue, for the ten-thousandth time, over the so-called “clobber texts”—the handful of mostly short, oblique passages that the likes of Rick Santorum, Billy Graham, and the current Pope pull out of context as warrant for their ongoing bigotry.

The religious right puts much of its energy into pretending that the Bible is a seamless whole, a Magic Decoding Ring that spits out answers for everything. But it’s not. It’s an archive of twenty-five centuries of people struggling to comprehend the Mystery we often call God, and it’s full of contradictions, bearing the traces of the many times that struggle led disparate groups to disparate conclusions.

Instead of looking for pat answers, we gathered last week to enter Scripture as a space we claimed a right to inhabit, a place to find ourselves, much as Bartimaeus in the story claims space despite the pious folks in the crowd around him who want him to shut up. We were there to imagine our way in: to find ourselves among the bystanders, puzzled by what might make a charismatic, iconoclastic young rabbi stop for a persistent beggar at the side of the road; or among the rabbi’s followers; or sitting ourselves in Bartimaeus’s place—the pushy, half-Greek, half-Jewish pariah; the ACT UP protester, half-blind with CMV, disrupting Mass from the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral; the campy queen who screams like an extra in Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments.

Before we were finished, making the text our own meant physically taking it apart and pasting scraps onto blank pages as collage: superimposing it over a background; drawing around it; laying one phrase over another. One of us found her way in through the words “Jesus stood still”; another through “take heart”; another through a jumble of phrases spilling disjointedly over one another.

But claiming the story was only the half of it. The other half was being claimed by it: the silence and concentration of half a dozen adults deeply absorbed in a project reminiscent of a kindergarten craft exercise; getting lost in words turned into raw material, rearranging them only to find, when we looked at what we’d made, that the words had rearranged us, called us to an awareness of something we hadn’t seen before. Like Bartimaeus, seeking new sight we received it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Colorful Realm

The scrolls flank the hall leading to the Awakened One seated at the far end: Ananda and Mahakashyapa attend him as he expounds the Lotus Sutra, proclaims compassion personified to all living beings. But interposed, the chatter of several hundred viewers drawn here, as I am, by the hype of PBS and the New York Times. A frenetic pilgrimage, this day of Amtrak back and forth from one imperial city to another for a few hours with these birds and flowers: jostling for a closer look at the filigree of feathers like cloisonné, built up stroke by stroke from shell-white ground in glue, craning, much like the herons that crane back, for a view  of one scene entire.

Itō Jakuchū of Kyoto (1716-1800): well-to-do wholesale grocer, retired at thirty-nine; student of painting and Zen who spends the next forty-five years learning to begin. He starts with the lovely and innocuous, a flight of butterflies defining the space where they aren’t. Then his materials take over: viscous snow splattered on both sides of the silk, across draftsmanship that speaks of consummate control. Just below the white goose, a brushload of ink savage and elegant and more blatantly nothing but itself than DeKooning in his middle years. Streams and garlands that leave little for Klimt to invent. Gold applied sparingly for its dangerous opacity.

Om mane padme hum. Deep in the meditation hall, life bursts the genre, too many invertebrates neither bird nor flower. Sixty-seven species of insects swarm around the frogs, water seething with tadpoles, hanging gourd coiled round by a snake, foliage lovingly painted in every stage of decay, caterpillar chewing exquisitely around the edge of the widening hole into which the leaf will vanish. Fish swim through the air above a pond seen from five viewpoints at once, dissolving the viewer into confusion. And endless: the fascination with chickens nobler than the Forty-Seven Ronin.

And suddenly I love this random crowd of our samsara. I smile and laugh with the woman who walks smack into plexiglass as she approaches plum branches beneath the moon; long to speak to the two men pressed shoulder to shoulder before an octopus floating in space. “What a gift to see this,” I offer lamely to the elderly woman with whom I share a bench and broken ice. "The real gift," she replies, "is to have created it."

I want to say Yes. And No. We are the unfolding now. We are the chattering birds weaving among impossible chrysanthemums.

For more of the paintings from The Colorful Realm of Living Beings,  go to