Sunday, November 28, 2010

Homesick


I was not a healthy child. My earliest memories include the indescribable pain of chronic ear infections and the occasional high fever that required being wrapped in alcohol soaked towels to bring my body temperature down to safe levels.  At a time when most children’s identities were being formed by the sensations and interactions of the outside world, my world often began and ended in the small dark isolated setting of the sick room, a simple place connected to activities and realities beyond only by a window and a door and a very keen almost catlike sense of hearing.

Perhaps this is how I began to accept that in more ways than one, I was different and set apart, because these were often my actual physical circumstances. People were shadowy visitors, coming and going as distant voices and footsteps in the hallway, interrupting my retreat with concerns and comforts, and vanishing. My position in relation to the world was one of inability to participate, albeit it temporary and involuntary. The far greater realities for me were the comings and goings inside my mind, the ebb and flow of pain and strength in my own body.  At a very early age, I knew my own mind and the workings of my body inside and out, I knew that the one provided extraordinary possibiilties, while the other would likely continue to frustrate and fail me, and I knew that my most intense experiences seemed to happen when other people weren’t around.

This past week I’ve been away from home. I started my travels with a bad headcold that got worse every day.  The sickly child I once was has fortunately managed to grow up into a much healthier adult, but I still get at least one bad upper respiratory infection a year, which, if left unresolved, can evolve into something worse, like pneumonia, a risky business for someone with asthma. At the first signs of a cold, I do everything I can to keep it brief. But this time, I was on the road, with changes in routine and surroundings, and fatigued from months of hard work and not taking the best care of myself. In addition, because I wanted to be a participant and not an invalid, I behaved as if I weren’t sick, staying up late, socializing, overindulging in food and drink. The result was I got sicker by the day until I finally had to admit defeat and spend a whole day in an unfamiliar bed, with the familiar companions of a closed door, a dimly lit window, and the bedcovers pulled up over my head to muffle the sounds of my unstoppable head-and-chest-splitting cough.

I wrote recently about how certain scents can bring back entire landscapes of memory in vivid detail, even allowing you to relive the original with intense immediacy. Being sick has this same effect on me. Suddenly I found myself no longer a rational capable middle aged woman being cared for by her boyfriend’s lovely welcoming sympathetic and solicitous family, but a 5 year old girl, curled into a ball crying because all the fun was happening beyond the confines of my sickroom while I was so thoughtless and selfish as to be unpleasantly ill and need taking care of. I felt that same strange blend of isolation, self-pity, guilt, frustration, longing, vulnerability, embarrassment and resentment, and a strong desire to at least be in my own home while reduced to this state. Then I stopped resisting, sank into my misery, and found the same door of imagination opening for me, in response to my door to the world of social interaction being closed. All boundaries of time and space dissolved and in that safe interior place, I was home.

Unfortunately this little crisis of collapse occurred on the morning of Brian’s big opening at Salon Indigo, and I am not a five year old free of responsibilities, so after several hours of fully and unapologetically occupying my mental and physical cocoon, I had to become a self-sufficient adult again, and rally my strength long enough to attend. Exiting my sickroom I felt like Lazarus emerging from the tomb. I was unsteady on my feet, and had almost forgotten how to look people in the eye and speak to them without the protection of a blanket over my face. The very air felt like a personal attack in my defenseless state. I remembered all the times as a child when the fever broke, the bedrest was no longer necessary, and it was time to return to the outside world. And for a moment I felt that same mixture of relief and regret.  

The happy ending is that the reception was a success, and my headcold has loosened its grip on my mind and body. I slept through the night last night without being awakened by coughing. I woke up at sunrise with words beginning to gather themselves in my mind for a new post, one sure sign that I have conquered a challenging experience, the desire and ability to write about it. And I thought of all the writers I’ve read whose childhood memories and memoirs have contained stories of illness, and how those experiences helped to define them as observers and interpreters of life. So, perhaps being a sickly child isn’t such a bad thing, and perhaps as an adult, a forced “time out” is occasionally necessary, a silent agreement between body and mind to re-create those conditions in which the only matters that require attention and action are those of the imagination.

Tomorrow, we begin our travels back north, and in a case of irony all too typical of my strange temperament, now that I am finally healthy enough to appreciate them, I am sure I will miss this place and the wonderful people I've met, and wish I could have stayed longer! December already has a few topics lined up to explore in this blog, which I intended to resume after my return home, but this topic said “me first!” and I had no choice but to listen.  

Best wishes to all.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Far and Away

Approaching a City by Edward Hopper

So. My apologies, but you are just going to have to wait a week or two to read my promised ponderings on the sense of taste! In a few days I am leaving for a much deserved long vacation, on which I intend to make full use of my sense of taste, among other things, and I realize I will not have time for a fully considered post before I go. Instead I wanted to use this space to let you all know that while away I will do my best to keep current with what is going on in your bloglives - if only to diminish the daunting task awaiting me on my return of doing justice to days and days of your good thoughts and images to absorb and properly respond to!

head in the clouds

Someone in blogland recently noted that there exists a perception that if you don’t blog about it, it didn’t happen (thanks Alexandra!). I rarely use this venue for personal reports or announcements. Readers must think all I do is stare at the clouds and think about things, make things, and think about thinking about making things, and then write about writing about it! And dwell in the past (if only to keep its lessons immediate and useful). Perhaps I am nothing but a cloud formation myself, bodiless and elusive. My desire when I began this blog only 3 months ago was to give myself a place to indulge my musings on art and life, in a way set apart from the trivia of mundane concerns, and maybe reach out to some good likeminded souls along the way, by being both intimately confiding and hopefully somehow universal . This venture has more than exceeded my expectations, both as a personal outlet and as a gathering point for others’ enriching insights I would never have found in any other way. 

social networking

Maybe someday soon I’ll join facebook or some other more social network in order to give more access to the side of my life that is not about wordplay and image making. You know, where I can post images or news of events that are actually happening to me in the present as opposed to portraits of inanimate objects and myself at a fraction of my current age.  My life is about to be very much about present events and adventures worth documenting and I suppose they merit their place as well. But before that can happen it is time for some time off. Must remember, even if I bring my laptop with me, that I am on vacation! See you in December and blog on!

Friday, November 12, 2010

The nose knows

The Librarian by Arcimboldo, 1566

In previous posts, I’ve examined and celebrated what can be apprehended by the eye, ear and hand. Not to deny the remaining two senses their due, I decided to write a little about the role of taste and smell sensations in my life, and of course what began as a few stray ideas grew quickly into a long essay! Why would I feel any less passionate or any more reticent about these aspects of a full experience of what life has to offer? Readers of this blog must think I have only two states of being: irrepressible synesthetic elation and craven crippling self-doubt, and that I am a sort of walking library of topics, each of which requires not a pamphlet, but a weighty tome to contain. Not surprisingly, it turned out there was so much to say about these two remaining portals of pleasure, it will require two separate posts, neither of them brief. This week, I consider smell.

doors of perception

I  was so happy to discover in recent times that science figured out what I always knew – that our sense of smell is more than just a simple stimulus processor, but a translator and supplier of complex and provocative information to our brains. Just think of all those receptors in our nasal passages, and how close they are to our gray matter! Just think how cut off and vulnerable we feel with a stuffy nose, even though of all the senses, I’m sure most of us would sacrifice this one first as the lesser, most dispensible tool for survival!

Proust's bedroom, Musee Carnavalet, Paris

Well, Proust was right, turns out, about all that souvenir involontaire stuff, and how a taste of madeleine cookie dipped in tea could lead to a whole insurmountable novel’s worth of memories the conscious mind could never retrieve with such intensity and detail.  As with taste, so with smell.  Not only does our sense of smell carry with it tons of coded information about the world around us we have forgotten in our lazy human way how to process and appreciate, but it also has the ability to create, or re-create, or even anticipate states of mind from this input, both past and present.  We are not just remembering, we are living and feeling the thing itself. Literary motif aside, this makes all kinds of biological sense to me in terms of survival – it is far more effective for quick identification of a friendly or hostile situation if you not only recognize it with your intellect but actually re-experience it in your whole body!

 Dan Yaccarino cartoon, 1993

Funny thing about baked goods and writers and memory. For me it is anything made with lemon extract. I can scarcely write those two words without swooning.  I was going to take a photograph of my resident miniature bottle of this nectar of the gods, but I’m afraid if I open it and take a whiff I may never finish this post, last seen headed for the nearest Italian bakery and blogged no more. In any Italian section of any city, especially during holiday seasons, this is the heady smell that wafts from every pastry shop, blended with a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar. For me it represents not just the items it gets mixed into, like ricotta pie, sesame seed cookies, biscotti, lemon gelato, torrone and struffoli to name a delectable few, but every Christmas morning waking up to that smell lingering long after the oven has cooled and the pots and pans stored away. It smells of everything in me that is undeniably and unsuppressibly Italian. It smells of family, cultural heritage, where I come from, who I am, how I carry on the life of my ancestors into modern times. I do not have a sweet tooth, and in fact have a dietary sensitivity to white sugar that makes consuming desserts not worth the unpleasant aftermath, so I tend to avoid sweets altogether. But still, the smell of Italian dolci sends me into a trance state not unlike intoxication, or stroking a purring cat…I suddenly feel I am in another time and place, another dimension, another life. My eyes close and I hear my grandmother singing. I can feel the soft skin of her wrinkled hands, delicate yet tough like parchment, and her fingers bent every which way at each joint from long years of hard work. I see the little faux pearl buttons on the white cardigan she wore in every season, to take the chill off. I am aware of the progression of images I have of her, changing year by year, growing smaller and duller, like a flame lowering to a mere fraction of its former vitality, but the smell of the things she pulled out of the oven, that rush of warm aroma as the door opened, that will not diminish or disappear, now, 25 years since her death, or ever.


And then there is wine.  A while back, I heard good things about Australian wine and decided to confirm that their enviable growing conditions really were producing reds that could shake my longterm loyalty to the French and Italian vineyards. What I liked most about the Shiraz I soon began to purchase in increasingly expensive and delicious varieties, was the nose. I thought up until then that good wine was all about taste, but really, the first time you pause to inhale the aroma contained in a glass, and then hold that first sip on the back of your tongue, letting the perfume expand and rise before swallowing, you understand that it is just as much about smell. My journey into high end wines ended with a half bottle by d’Arenberg that cost more than any whole bottle I’d ever purchased. I drank it alone lying on my couch, was rendered nearly immobile by pleasure, and after every sniff and sip, exhaled and exclaimed “oh my god oh my god oh my god” followed by “I can die happy now.” Later at my favorite NYC wine shop, I found out there was another year and variety from this same vintner that cost twice as much, only came in whole bottles and was EVEN BETTER. I special ordered it as a birthday gift to myself. When the scent was released from that bottle, it was like one of those sinister yet beguiling cartoon vapors that turn into a finger and gently crook, beckoning you onward…it told me all I knew before, and all that was yet to come, and I was besotted before I even dared have that first taste. What followed defies description. Because, like music, sensations of smell are something you can write about only in terms of how they made you feel. You cannot capture and show the thing itself, its essence is beyond words, and can only be known by experiencing them again. But the wonderful thing about music and perfume, is that once summoned by memory, in all the details that first indraw of sensory information provided, you can indeed experience them again. 

 photo courtesy of BBG

I would be remiss not to pay tribute here to that first and best scent sensation delivery system, the flower. I am so glad that in order to propagate, these beings developed not only such unavoidable visual beauty, but also amazing aromas to get their alluring message across to pollinating insects. I understand the bees' helpless attraction all too well, who could resist? My favorite place on Earth, if you read me you know by now, is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. They have an annual riot of cherry blossoms, they have a lily pond whose picturesque orange fish I’ve photographed and immortalized here, they have all varieties of native and imported trees and a veritable fireworks display of late summer roses, but most of all they have a grove of lilacs. One that has made me exhale and exclaim my readiness for an immediate and happy demise to a degree only outrageously costly Aussie wine can provoke. Lilacs everywhere, in every color from white to dark purple, early and late blooming, short and tall, dense and spare, and every one of them providing an intoxicating perfume that once inhaled makes you want to lie down on the grass and let out a salacious sigh as if you were in an opium den. It feels deliciously indecent. I have more than once leaned into a cluster, breathing deep, and emerging looking around almost guilty lest someone witness my performing some illegal act, or emitting some indecorous sound.  Then I move on to the next cluster, and the next, bold, unseeing, uncaring, like a woman in love.

 close your eyes and breathe deep

To navigate and understand her world, my cat smells everything, rubbing her cheeks on all surfaces both to take in and set down scent. She can’t ask when I come home “where have you been?” Instead she avoids my expectant gaze and greetings and goes right for my shoes, or the knapsack or clothes I shed as I re-enter our home territory.  Once she’s had a good sniff, she proceeds to put her own smell all over everything to claim and familiarize it.  Ah, now it’s okay, she seems to be saying as she walks away and continues to put scent on everything else in her path, as she will do, repeatedly, all day, every day, just to make sure all is well, because all smells well.  Animals can tell who is sick or healthy, friend or foe, approachable or best avoided, just because their nose knows. When and how did we lose that faculty or  the need or desire to keep it sharp? So much can be learned and enjoyed if we only pay attention to what the nose knows.  In this day and age we are very much a culture geared to the visual. I urge you all to take a moment this week to close your eyes, breathe deep, and feel intensely. 

Next week: food, glorious, food!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Warrior Women


 The Witchblade

Way back in the summer of 2001, there was a short-lived series on television called “Witchblade.”  It was part crime drama, part science fiction, part literary fantasy, and somehow had a feminist message while providing a good amount of cheesecake! Wikipedia reminds me it was based on a comic book series and has since resurfaced in various incarnations from anime to manga to a proposed but delayed feature film, but my experience was primarily with the tv show, which I loved enough to wait 8 years for the full DVD set, which, once purchased, I have yet to find time to watch! 

 How I look to myself in my head

Anyway, the weapon of the title was an ancient bejeweled metal glove that transformed into a formidable weapon, but only in – or on – the hand of the person chosen to wield it against the forces of evil.  As you might expect, the Witchblade was desired by those very same forces of evil, who found ways to use it for some pretty bad evil on a few occasions throughout history to the present. But mostly it was used by the forces of good, a series of strong women chosen across cultures and centuries, including Joan of Arc, and the latest of which, and star of the show, was a smart-talking, tough-edged followed-by-bad-luck, yet somehow always looking-absolutely-marvelous NYPD cop named Sara, see clad in leather above.  This series was canceled after only a year and I still can't figure out why.

                              source material for scabbard tattoo, 2002


It was with this oh-so-cool symbol of female power in mind that I designed one of my first large tattoos, the one that took me over the edge of just having a few nice pieces located around my body like well-placed accents or accessories to thinking in terms of my whole body as a canvas. I wanted something with a tribal motif, all black, with a bold timeless look, but nothing like anyone else had, and found exactly what I needed in the form of an ancient Celtic scabbard discovered in an art book in the dusty stacks of the library in which I used to work. I photocopied the book, traced and cut out the design, even took a photo of myself in the mirror with the paper cutout taped to my skin, and brought it all to my tattoo artist in New York on a visit home.

   my uninked arm,  spring 2002

The idea was to have it look real, not like a picture of something painted on me, but an actual piece of open ironwork wrapped around my whole arm. I have to say, after one of the strangest and longest tattoo appointments I ever had or will ever have again, the guy did a brilliant job. This was not the usual rotuine of making a drawing to scale on tracing paper, stenciling it onto the skin and then just tattooing the imprinted design line by line. Because of all the weird curves, angles and sight-lines of such a large body surface, Dave had to draw the whole tattoo right on me. I became his sketchbook. It took three hours just to get the design plotted out with three different Sharpies, another 5 to tattoo the entire outline from wrist to elbow, then another three to make a start on the filling in of all the black shading, which would take another three hour session months later to complete. 

 my inked arm today

Through the whole experience we talked and laughed as other customers came and went, and I learned exactly how much pain a body can endure if the mind is trained to accept and override it. Finally at 1am, we closed the shop in New Jersey and he drove me back to Manhattan, because the trains and buses had all stopped running. He met some friends for a late night movie in the Village; I lay in bed popping ibuprofen and watching my arm double in size. If this was my eternal symbol of the fighting spirit, I had earned it, literally by bloodshed and an inner strength I didn’t know I had until I needed to call on it and it answered. In every ordeal of body or spirit that has faced me since, recalling that day has helped to put into perspective what is within my power to endure, survive, and master, if I just put my mind to it. 

Witchblade was canceled in the summer of 2002.

   
A few years later I had the last bit on my hand added by another artist – it always felt like the necessary finishing touch, but back in 2002, Dave kept asking “are you sure? This is gonna change everything.” Full sleeves are bad enough, but hand ink, second only to face ink, is REALLY crossing the line from a discrete tattoo or two to being an official “tattooed lady” unable to conceal as much from the public.  It says a lot about my interest in being discrete that a year later I was working on a full sleeve for the left arm, which eventually had a hand component added.  The left arm features a grape cluster-and-leaf design inspired by a bit of Italian lace, and represents the creative side of my personality, if the right side is the fighter. In all the artwork I carry on my skin, I try to represent many cultures and styles, with a lot of deep symbolism. I have a very traditional view of body art, that it is not merely adornment, but a rite of passage in which you take on the spirit of certain qualities you want to bring with you on your life’s journey – the ferocity and grace of the tiger, the transformative power of the butterfly and phoenix, the patient beauty of the vine and rose, the always ready but sheathed sword of the spiritual warrior, elements opposite in nature, but brought into symmetry and balance for a harmonious whole.

 right ankle, completed 2004 

At any rate, before this digression on the background of my many tattoos, which could fill a whole book, it recently occurred to me that all these wrist warmers I’ve been making and posting about, and the reason I love them so much, might just hearken back to the Witchblade, and the idea of a gauntlet as a cool accessory for a modern warrior woman!  So when I found myself stalled last week making the scarf inspired by the Mystery Artist -- remember that? -- I had a rethink, and decided to turn it into wrist warmers instead. Much to my delight, folding over the diamond/squares I had intended to link point to point for the length of the scarf, I ended up not with a mere wrist warmer, but a long strangely ancient-looking and warlike gauntlet!  There is still much more work to be done, but here is the latest view:
                           
 then...

   
...and now

 The Woolblade

So, in a roundabout way and way overdue, this post is your latest clue for the Mystery Artist contest! We already know that the artist is contemporary, non-American, female and deals with the world of inner feelings and visions. She is also no stranger to the concept of the historical and mythical power of the feminine, as warrior, witch, and goddess. She would make a fine wielder of the Witchblade, if she isn’t already! Because I think this last image and clue will prompt more than one good guess, I am happy to give something of mine to the first three who get it right! Because I have been shown such generosity lately, and we are entering the giving season, I've decided the winners will get free run of my etsy shop and can choose any one item as their prize. Items to choose from include my chapbook of poems, mounted photos available in large and small formats, and of course, if something fashionable yet functional is your preference, one of the alpaca fiber scarves and wrist warmers currently listed! 

see my shop here or simply follow the links at right

This week a special welcome to my new followers and to my good blogfriends who not only visit me here but have been kind enough to mention me on their blogs! Happy weekend to all.