9/27/2007 at 00:00
What do you do with a quest laid upon you by one who is now dead? An endeavor born of pain which cleaved the life of the one who gave it to you?
What do you do with a weapon laid unsheathed across your palms when you are the only one who knows its weight- its murderous edge- but cannot grasp it?
This Sunday it will have been fifteen months since my friend Cindy died.
She was only fifty years old. Smart. Good with her hands- she gutted and refinished the hundred-year-old house she lived in alone. Tall, blonde, pretty. Quiet. Passionate about politics and responsibility and personal action.
She used to work in a sheriff’s office. She suffered sexual harassment there- one of the most extreme cases I’ve ever encountered. It continued for two years and it ended in a man’s- a cocaine addict’s- suicide, and her dismissal.
She fought for reinstatement for five years after that. First as a pro se plaintiff, then as an appellant represented by a feminist attorney.
Like him who day by day unto his draught
She lost. Lost what hope she had of getting her career back. Lost years of her life to an action ultimately dismissed sua sponte by a judge who could not believe that the evidence she had was genuine.
Lost, I think, her faith in the existence of justice. And in the good intentions of other human beings.
When we met I hadn’t yet applied to law or med school. She knew I wanted to be a doctor, but liked the law. She told me a little about her case and, when I expressed interest in the details, invited me over for strong black coffee and excellent jam cookies.
Every Wednesday for two months I would sit and sip and munch in her beautifully refinished kitchen, and we would talk about her case. I would jot down notes sometimes- names, dates, outrageous actions. There were plenty of those.
When she’d finished her story, we had become friends. We would go door-to-door on political campaigns together; meet for horrible Chinese food at a place she liked.
She was diagnosed with spinal cancer 4 months after I was admitted to SIU.
I saw her once more after that, and then never again. Never got to say goodbye to her, to tell her how much her suffering and her strength had moved me. Towards the end she was barely conscious, and her family would not permit anyone to visit.
Her friends John and Bonnie are the executors of her estate, and it wasn’t until 7 months after she died that they told me she had left me her French books and notebooks- and all documents relating to her sexual harassment case.
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
And it wasn’t until then that I realized that they- her best friends- had no real idea what had happened to her.
She never talked about it, they said. Never told them or her family. No-one ever really knew what had happened, only that it had destroyed something inside her.
Had she told me?
They had the enormous forbearance and decency not to ask. Had they done so before telling me that no one knew exactly what had happened, I’d have told them on the assumption that they knew some of it already. But this…
She meant me to carry the entire story alone- had told only me in all the years between its happening and the day she died. Had left me the only proof in existence of the events which made her the woman she was to that last day.
Wanted me to do something. To say something.
To make it mean something.
And I don’t know how.
Earth and sky forgive me, because I still, 8 months later, don’t know where to start.
How do I make the events which sliced the hope from her eyes, the light from her smile, mean more than she already has?
She survived it. She fought, and then fought again, until there was nothing of her left with which to fight. And even when she no longer believed in justice, in true decency- she worked for it anyway.
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten…
She lived through something that would have made another woman a ringing shell. So her laughter sounded hollow at times- so what? It was still there. Still carried enough spark to warm her eyes once in a while.
The documents I hold are a weapon I have not the expertise nor time to wield. But they are mine, and she entrusted them to me, and so I bear them, a weight of helplessness and grief I have not the skill to ease or mend.
Because to do less would be to dishonor her pain, to forget her wounds and the grace with which she carried them.
What can I do with what she gave me? This small and pathetic commentary is unworthy of her. Unworthy even of her name.
Nothing, nobody can do more than she did.
I drink- and live- what has destroyed some men.
I’m sorry, Cindy. (And while I have strength, I will carry it for you.)
Labels: death, diary, human rights, lament
9/14/2007 at 11:38
1) I don’t like Rubens. Not only do I find his nudes unappealing- no muscle or tone, and flat, doughy faces- his scenes and compositions look cluttered, undertinted, and boring to me. (Do NOT say this out loud in Germany. You’ll get nasty looks and museum guards will become belligerent. Really.)
2) Albrecht Durer was a major, major, major babe. Take a look at his self-portrait; he looks like the Wild Hunter just before he sheds his cloak to cry the avaunt, or like Aragorn Elessar on the morning before he was crowned. Breathtaking. Standing in front of the portrait was an unnerving exercise in convincing myself that I couldn’t really be mesmerized by a daub of paint. (I never did succeed.)
3) Brueghel’s paintings could outsell the “Where’s Waldo” series, and for the same reason. No matter how long you stand in front of one of those small, pied canvases, you’re never going to take in everything he’s hidden- whether it’s a boy stealing apples in the background of a Nativity scene or a squirrel stealing seeds from a bird in the foreground of a winter skating scene. The feathery brushwork, the deliberately muted hues, are deceptive; the life of the paintings is in the detail which crowds towards you when you stop to observe.
4) Static figures and compositions don’t interest me. I want a sense of movement, of some form of thought or emotion, in a painting. Or in a sculpture, come to think of it.
5) All sculpture looks better when standing in an enormous 13th century medieval fortress. Not an intuitive piece of information, but you live and learn.
6) Cellini was in love with, or at least lusted after, Cosimo de’Medici. He had to be. Nobody produces a bust that looks like this without having some sexual feeling for its subject. The damned thing is hotter than a posed pinup- how in hell did he do that? It’s bronze, for crying out loud. (And considering the number of times Cellini literally got away with murder under that particular Grand Duke of Tuscany, the feeling might have been mutual.)
7) Donatello’s David is beautiful, but disturbing- this boy can’t have been more than 12, and he’s clearly sexualized (whether by the sculptor or on his own is indeterminate). His is also a more classical saint’s pose- the serenity of his face and feature, coupled with the enormous head at his feet, is slightly unnerving.
8) I actually like Alessandro Botticelli, weak-minded idiot follower of Savonarola that he was (what other denomination can be used for an artist stupid enough to burn his own paintings at the behest of that killed-too-late fanatic? –though as my colleague James observed, having Savonarola burned to death was, if poetically just, perhaps a bit excessive). I was tired of the Venus- and her pale, pastel palette- before I got there, but the wealth and complexity of allegorical imagery in Botticelli’s paintings is as involving and fascinating as his glorious, luxuriant tints. His Pallas and the Centaur in particular, with its frighteningly implacable, serenely murderous goddess, is arresting; Botticelli’s paintings- except, again, for the Venus- almost burst off the walls, pulsing with exacting detail and a pagan riot of color.
9) I could have made mad money if I’d majored in art authentication and become an expert on Domenicos Theotokopoulos. I can, apparently, spot an El Greco painting a mile and a half away. (This was a consistent theme in the Alte Pinakothek as well, but it was confirmed in the Uffizi.)
10) Similarly, I can actually tell a Perugino from a Vasari (without looking at the label). And I actually like Perugino. And no, I’m not talking about the chocolates (meh).
11) My congenital lack of a sense of direction doesn’t apply in museums. I- the woman who not five years ago got herself lost in the neighborhood in which she grew up- can, with no map and never having been there before, find my way through the most winding and labyrinthine of layouts in order to return to the precise spot of a single painting in a room containing dozens on a floor which holds hundreds.
12) I don’t like Leonardo da Vinci’s painting. (Gasp! Horror! Oh, bloody shut up.) It is the single most unimpressive oeuvre of a spectacularly talented man; static, placid, attenuated and overposed, it reeks of the late-Gothic sensibility that the artist repeatedly wrote that he deplored. I love da Vinci’s engineering, writing, and philosophy. But not his painting.
13) I have, apparently, no problem with standing in front of a painting in a major museum and laughing. As I’ve previously written, I’d discovered before I got to the Uffizi that seeing a work of art in person is very different from seeing reproductions in books; and I’ve also written that the differences in Michelangelo’s sensibilities, his portrayals of real human beings, were a shock to me. As was his Doni Tondo: a portrait of the Holy Family, in which Christ is being handed to a seated Mary, over her shoulder, by Joseph. And Christ? He’s doing what all babies do in that position, though you won’t see it until you’re close to the painting- he’s pulling Mary’s hair. (Blasphemy! Do you blame me for bursting into laughter?)
14) I have a quirk of character that forces me to go all girly over busts of my favorite Roman emperors. (This is especially true of Octavian, later called Augustus, calculating and impenetrable manipulator that he was. But it’s true for others too.) Warriors, thinkers: it doesn’t matter. I stand and stare like a starstruck fangirl.
15) Even if it’s the only thing I have that day, $6.00 for a doppio espresso macchiato is cheap to me- if it comes with a view of the Campanile ringing evensong at sunset against the soft gold of the Duomo, the rough and battlemented turret of the Palazzo Vecchio looming over the small balcony, close enough to touch in the growing dark.
Museo dell’Opera del Santa Maria Fiore
16) Michelangelo’s final Pieta SHOULD have stood on his grave, unfinished or not. The gorgeous anguish of the pose, the broken, gleaming body of Christ is beautiful in a way that surpasses ‘disturbing’ and goes straight to ‘awestruck’.
17) Donatello’s Magdalen far surpasses his David. Her suffering is palpable, a blow in the face to those expecting beauty, and her battered, pleading figure produces equal parts pity and horror- both a desire to turn away and hide from her pain and a complete inability to do so.
18) Donatello, like Titian (see below) displays a sympathy for his female subjects that, given his sex and time period, is startling. His portrayal of The Creation of Eve, the bewilderment and terror on her face, her weakness as she sags into the stiff shoulder of the god before her, clutching at a father who will not hold her back, evokes as much compassion as it does admiration.
19) The original panels from the Porta del Paradiso are worth seeing, but mainly for the understanding of what nearly 500 years of wear and weather will do even to bronze. The replicas at the Battistero are far more beautiful.
Kunsthistoriches and Museo Correr
20) Italian sculpture in the presence of other art has a strange effect on my senses. Antonio Canova’s neoclassical marbles, static and passionless as they are, bored the hell out of me all through Florence and Venice- but were suddenly so much more fascinating once I was in Vienna and by contrast with the larger, emotionally abstract statues there. Then again, it may also have been a question of scale and period- everything in Vienna, everything, is enormous, and reflects a gothic or baroque sensitivity. Canova’s sculptures are too sparely rendered to fit stylistically, but in terms of size and spirit- large, opulent, showy, but with little delicacy- they fit right in.
21) The Venetian Renaissance painters have no peer when it comes to use of color. For the few paintings that have been restored (far, far too few), the colors which push off the canvas are truer than life, so vivid that I wondered how the human eye was capable of seeing them at all, much less recreating them on canvas. But after glancing out the window of the Correr across the Adriatic on a sunny morning, those colors are less mysterious, though no less arresting.
22) I’m capable of a frightening level of avarice when it comes to books. When I see an illuminated manuscript I want it, with an instant and unreasoning passion. Not in order to say I own it: but to take it out and look at it, turn the pages, gaze at the words and images, feel the binding in my hands, as often and for as long as I want.
23) Ancient sculpture fascinates me intellectually but doesn’t involve me emotionally. Greek, Roman, Egyptian- the works produce awe at the age of the pieces, astonishment at the accomplishments of artists working under the technological constraints the ancients faced, but very little in the way of visceral response. I could gaze at them for hours, but I can’t get emotionally involved with them.
24) Titian’s reds fascinate me and always have- colors which glow off the canvas even through the centuries of accumulated grime- but his sympathy for his female subjects fascinates me even more. He shows a tenderness and understanding rare in that chauvinist time- indeed, rare anywhere- and his women are imbued with values far surpassing beauty and grace. His Lucretia and her Consort is radiant, but not because she’s lovely; her resolve and courage shine in her face. Her heroic gaze- uplifted, thoughtful, nearly joyful- make the man at her side and the blade in her hand almost irrelevant. Of all the portraits of saints and martyrs I’ve seen, Titian’s pagan queen comes closest to capturing perfectly the ideal of conscious and exalting, exulting self-sacrifice.
His Venus of Urbino was even more of a shock. Commissioned by a wealthy merchant as an “instruction” for a new bride who was a third of his age, his courtesan is provocative, yes; her beautiful body and the drape of her hands and hair are seductive. But there is challenge in her eyes; her gaze is as cool as it is hot, and the question of whether or not her lover is worthy to approach her, capable of satisfying her, gleams in her intelligent look. The artist’s sympathies lie palpably with the woman displayed for perusal, not with the observer, and his compassion is as skillfully rendered as it is astonishing.
Labels: art, diary, travel
9/11/2007 at 22:54
My brother learned to ride a motorcycle when he was 13 years old.
In India, of course. All my uncles ride- large, sleek, gleaming British machines- and they taught him.
I? I was 15. Loved riding with them, wanted to learn so that I could do it too.
But I was a girl.
The summers I was 12, and even 15, I was mewed in Nana's compound- the tall walls showing only trees and sky- the way a virgin nun is mewed in a cloister: I could not leave except for holy days and special outings, even then escorted by a guard of more than one of my aunts and at least one uncle.
(Often friends are amazed at the number of books I now read and have read. I tell them they should not be; but they seldom listen. And few of them know, and none have guessed, that the price for this skill, for the early catalogue of my knowledge, was an imprisonment as real as any convicted criminal experiences. Only… I was innocent.)
So, I climbed.
My uncles were all right with it. (I assure you that had they not been, I would have had to climb at night, in secret.) After all, my mother had done the same thing twenty years ago (but gotten into dreadful trouble over it, then); and I was still inside the walls. There was no chance of me being seen by anyone other than family, or of getting out, even had I thought of doing such a thing (I didn't; I had promised when I was 12 not to leave without permission, and I keep my promises): the tops of the walls are inlaid with broken glass.
I climbed and climbed and climbed. Barefoot. Shod in everything from flip-flops to sandals to sneakers. The mango. The coconut palm. (I got yelled at for that one.) The windowsills, the well- I would haul buckets of water up, over and over and over again, for something to do, for the chance to feel my muscles straining- the guava.
And, figuratively speaking, the walls.
I'm in the midst now of my biennial reading of Tolkien, which always reminds me of that pen, reminds me that though I was as strong, as fast, as graceful, as enchanted with riding as- and a better rider on horseback than- my brother… still I was left behind.
Any wonder that, instead of the magnificent, the immortal and exquisite Undómiel, I've always sympathized with Éowyn- mortal, flawed, fair and fell Shieldmaiden of the Rohirrim?
It was Gandalf who said these words of her: My friends, you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours... who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?
Éowyn made sure Aragorn, too, understood: "What do you fear, lady?" he asked. "A cage," she said. "To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."
I am free of walls and wards and warnings now. And I am, as an acquaintance of mine once told me, no longer governable, unbridled save for those bonds I accept of my own will. I come only to whom I please; I go only to where I choose.
I am, J. said, still a wild thing.
J. is only half right; for I am not still a wild thing. I am a creature who grew up penned and watching others running free.
I am not still wild. I am now wild.
And now, and here, are bonds I have chosen- a cage to which only I hold the key.
And I still, as I told my friend Kristina three nights ago, climb- climb everything I can climb. Not as often nor as high as I used to, though I still eye fences and trees and walls, and occasionally things like shelves or bridge supports, measuringly.
Heights I reach myself, with my own limb and sinew: not only air, and perspective, and sanctuary. Freedom.
I know this. And occasionally I remind myself of it, experimenting along the way. Like tonight.
No bitter watches of the night with air unbreathed, deeds undone, for me; no words spoken to the darkness. Only my breath and the scrape of bark and leather, the sting of weight on my palms and fingers, the rough press of tree-limbs through my jeans.
(Oh, yeah- even though they'll scuff, you can climb a magnolia in Doc Martens.)
Labels: culture, diary, freedom, sexism
9/05/2007 at 11:56
My second trip to Firenze- I told you that I was addicted to the place, did I not?- almost didn’t happen.
My first, regardless of the fact that it included San Lorenzo, Santa Croce, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, and the Porta del Paradiso of the Battistero, was a nearly-pure perdition. The hostel at which we stayed was the worst of any I’ve experienced in Europe; every single stroke of luck or timing from our arrival onwards seemed to conspire against Bea and I. Such was the buildup of intransigently horrible events that when she dropped her camera on the steps of Santa Maria del Fiore on the day that we arrived, we both nearly tucked tail and ran. Hell, we both nearly cried.
I debated returning. Why bludgeon myself with such patent unpleasantness again? But I’d not seen the Uffizi, the Bargello, the David. I gritted my teeth, stoked my inherent stubbornness, and returned, prepared to endure any unpleasantness to see the artists I’d loved my entire life.
And wound up in a place and with people who were as perfectly suited to my views and desires as my first trip was- not.
So my first tip? Stay at the Hotel Sampaoli with the brothers Caponi. Leonardo and Ricardo are erudite, good-humored, fiercely principled, and eloquent, brilliant conversationalists- in both English and Italian. They also, not-so-incidentally, run an excellent hotel: clean, comfortable, quiet, efficient. And, as I said, filled with cultured, informed, passionately opinionated conversation, if you want it. (In point of fact it was Orsanmichele that broke the ice between Leonardo and I as soon as I was through his door: “You know Orsanmichele?” Puzzled look. “Yes- former granary turned Medici church, no? Sculptures by Verrochio, Donatello, and Ghiberti?” A long impenetrable stare. “Si. Allora. Come here. Sit down.”)
Which leads to my second tip: Don’t ask Leonardo, Francesca, or Ricardo- hell, any Fiorentino- about the Trevi Fountain. (Yes, this really happened- and, I wince to say, it was an American. Leonardo informs me that it happens on a fairly regular basis.) What this really translates into is “do your homework”, which is the best general travel trip I can give anybody. You’re spending pots of money to get to, and then see, another place- learn about where you’re going, what’s there, and why it’s important to the world. It doesn’t take that long, and will make all the difference to what you see and how it stays with you.
Third tip: Don’t spend all your time shopping. This is another piece of good general advice. Even for those who love to shop- and believe me, Bea is one of those people; I spent more time shopping during the ten days we traveled together than I’d spend in a month and a half of my normal life- there are far better and more interesting things to do. While I bought Florentine leather, Venetian glass, fans, and museum books along the way... stuff is fungible. And all of the above are just that: stuff. Ultimately, you can get it anywhere.
Art, architecture, conversations with natives, espresso or wine or mountain air drunk in along with different views of the place in which you find yourself- these are the things that are unique and irreplaceable, the things which if missed in a given place are not obtainable anyplace else. Treat yourself to them. They, unlike the gorgeous leather belts and purses, the shimmering silver-and-gold glass, will stay with you as long as you have a mind with which to recall them.
Fourth tip: Walk. I’ve already gone on about public transportation in Firenze, and yes, I was there in summer, but the truth is that it’s a very small city, and no matter what the weather you’re going to see more twisting, cobbled alleys fronting improbable palaces and prisons-turned-museums, more jewelry stores spilling into each other on the Ponte Vecchio, walking, than you will any other way. So what if you’ll sweat? Wear antiperspirant, drink enough water, carry some baby wipes, and deal with it. Yeah, it’s plebian. It’s also the best way to see Firenze. (One exception: the Piazzale Michelangelo is a hell of a climb, especially at the end of a day of walking, and dusk is the best time to go. Ride up if you can.)
Fifth tip: Listen. Listen well. Fiorentine Italian- the gorgeous, pure Tuscan dialect- is unequaled; peerlessly beautiful, it is singular in the fact that it was chosen as the standard for Italian based solely on the loveliness of its sound. Dante Alighieri’s title of Pater Patriae- Father of the Country- is based on his popularization of Tuscan Italian in his Commedia (later dubbed Divina by Boccaccio). It is, quite possibly, the most ravishing language in existence, and it flows freely all around you.
Sixth tip (coffee lovers only): A doppio espresso macchiato in Firenze should qualify as a confection. We’re talking near-ecstatic perfection here; don’t miss it.
Most of the rest of my “tips” are actually observations from specific places I went in Firenze, and they belong in a different post. (When will I stop posting about this past summer? Probably next summer. At least that way, I can keep the memories close at hand during my year in Carbondale.) I’ll close with some thoughts from a recent email between Leonardo and I, in response to his question on what I would say- in English- to someone who asked about Firenze:
I would say that Firenze was the place that redefined what the West thought of as beauty. That rediscovered what the West could do with engineering and mathematics. That literally, through its revival of the laws of perspective, changed the way the entire world looked at art.
That seeing Firenze only for its shopping is like seeing the Pacific Ocean only for the soothing sound of its water.
That its palaces and castles are significant not for what they look like but for the opulence of the genius and artistry that they contain. That the grace and allure of the city lies in its anchoring in a past in which it changed the world. And for a time, dominated it.
That Firenze began a tradition so deeply ingrained in Western thought that we take it for granted: that human talent, excellence, and art are worth almost any price paid for their creation.
That if you look carefully and well, what you see will shift your definition of beauty, of power, of achievement, of wealth. And that no matter how much you see, once you truly behold what Firenze offers you will never be able to see enough.
That’s what I’d say. But just to start.
Labels: art, diary, travel
Not reality. Not fantasy. Not light. Not dark.
Not precise. Not blunt. Not illuminated.
No edges. No lines.
And no pronouns.
Humans love asking questions to which they don’t have the answers. To which no answer may ever be possible.
Why IS a raven like a writing-desk?
Here’s to elucidation. Sweet monkey, I hope it’s catching.
Never underestimate the ability of people to be utterly uninterested in terrible problems which don’t directly affect them.
Why is it that when I feel swamped, the Bog of Eternal Stench is a mildly odorous but unprepossessing reek in comparison?
Everyone knows that they live alone inside their own skins. So why do we rarely if ever think about this idea? Is it too terrible? Too appealing? Why spend so much time acting in denial of it? Would explicitly acknowledging it make us more compassionate?
What does freedom mean? Is it an idea? A reality? What is it worth?
What is a terrorist?
Is it someone who kills innocents? Someone who kills noncombatants? Someone who fights for the overthrow of the regime under which s/he lives? Revolutionaries, soldiers, guerilla fighters, freedom fighters- where are the edges of these categories?
The flicker of fluorescent lights saps my energy. I know I sound like Joe from Joe vs. the Volcano here, but can’t energy-efficient lighting be achieved without this skimmed-milk-blue humming zap?
These words are apparently illegal: Mr. Cheney, I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible.
Magic Numbers: Atomic Stability
Fe (86P, 126N)
Neutrons and Protons:
2, 8, 20, 28, 50 and 82
Difference: 6, 12, 8, 22, 32
2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, 126, 184
Difference: 6, 12, 8, 22, 32, 44, 58
There’s a pattern here. Dammit. Dammit. Why can’t I see it?
Love beggars you. Family, intellect, education, friends- none of those things matter when romantic love is involved: nakedness is the order of the day. No pedigree, no credential will suffice for you there.
Come empty-handed, bearing only yourself with you.
The difference between profanity and obscenity: other than the obvious distinction between profaning something sacred and exposing something sexual or deviant?
Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but that they so seldom reap,
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.
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