On The Road, Upwind

Our nomadic life of the previous six weeks had scoured away many extraneous concerns, like whether my hair was a greasy mess or my trousers splattered with mud.  A daily shower was a priority that I didn’t even notice dropping away. If I thought about it, I liked the idea of not smelling foul, but I couldn’t really tell until it was too late.  And Mark, in a unique position to know, was glad for my company and wasn’t talking.  So I arbitrarily drew the line at around five days for the full scrub. That timing also worked well with needing to go to a motel for wifi, to pay my bills and write my brains out. Being clean was a special treat, sort of like the lollipop that you get at the doctor’s office after a shot – the painful part being stuck inside a motel room for hours on end.  It didn’t take an Einstein to figure out that hygiene was relative.  It took a cheerfully oblivious Pepe LePew.

Adieu, crapola!

Our little station wagon was piled high with stuff.  We had to place things carefully so we had an open alley for the rear view mirror to work.  There were things I thought I would need that just settled and sank lower and lower in the pile as we drove on, weighted by their uselessness.  Near the doors and back hatch, close to the top, were the things that we did need – whatever got us where we were going, and hiking without discomfort.  Food was easy to get to, right at the back hatch.  Boots and walking sticks were tucked just behind the seats.   And then there was “the hole”, a bag, low in the dead center, lightly covered, an arm’s reach beyond the cooler, that held the valuables that we needed in town – the laptop, for instance, and the carefully chosen maps arranged in order for our long itinerary.  The current maps, the ipod and all the chargers lived up front with a jumble of dark glasses, reading glasses, and a bag of chips.

Essentials at the ready

My tea kit floated to the top, but my watercolors sank and never came up for air.  The washcloth (A Modicum of Cleanliness, Gromit!), my tiny camera, thin wool socks – thumbs up.  Campstove, air mattress (when it worked) – –  Love you!  The thick synthetic socks, the novel, the extra pillow, the hat that couldn’t roll up into a ball, the $17 stainless steel travel mug, hair conditioner  – no, no, no, no, no and wha???  Mark says the guitar might have been a mistake, but for those half-dozen times that he took it out and played, it was heaven.

That old first-world “material” problem – too many things – shook down and settled in our funkmobile.  On the road to glory, you need only the bare essentials.  That goes for the road to Chicago, too.

The Chicago Manual Of Style

The Chicagoans we encountered downtown dressed with spare elegance, and well-tailored practicality. The one and only chapter in the Chicago Manual of Style was  “Let’s not get too fussy.  There’s life to be lived, for cryin’ out loud.” From the lovely, churchy outfit a spotted on one side of the downtown intersection…

Pulled together, snappy style

…To the perfectly tailored, sleek fellow on the other side…

Chic, cool, urbane

…we saw the under-the-radar confidence of Chicago.

Less is more.

Innocent Question In The Clouds

Years ago, at a particularly heated and formative moment for my generation’s political and sexual identity, I read Joan Didion’s essay about Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting, “The Sky Above The Clouds”, and I wanted to love it. With airless precision (I wouldn’t want to live in her migraine-plagued head) Didion discussed the equation of style and character, and O’Keeffe’s singular courage and stature as a woman artist.  The essay led me to her work, for which I am very grateful.  Didion said it was a picture of glory – I liked that, and it stuck with me.  I thought about how important the apprehension of glory is to people, particularly people whose lives are pushed down, constricted and shoved around by social definitions and hierarchies.

Glory – The expansive power of something you sense to fill and stretch your being. The young are good at finding it because they are inevitably drawn to experiences that help them grow in mind and spirit.  That draw is part of what makes us human, it’s there from the get-go, and stays, if you let it, until your dying day.  Don’t you always yearn to cut loose find the pure glory of this world, and unbind the limitations of your self?

When I saw the painting in person at the Art Institute, I did like it.  A big broad canvas:  little clouds floating below, the viewer is a titan standing above it all.  The great distance is a sight to ponder, and it draws you in, and way, way out.

It’s a didactic painting, about the power of perspective, on where you may stand to get a view of the world.  Really it’s about the perspective of power itself.  O’Keeffe claimed an exalted vantage point as an artist, one usually reserved for men.  And in this painting, she spelled it out:  I am fully human, with an imagination as powerful as any.  Behold my realm!  The bold, essential feminist manifesto.

I love O’Keeffe’s body of work, and she is a cultural champion, in my book. But this painting has an evenness, a flatness that leaves me standing at the station, waving as the banner goes flying by. You go, Georgia!  It’s a portrait of a political notion, essentially a graphic, a poster. The only objects in the painting are the clouds, and they are reductive ideas of clouds, useful for describing a lofty viewpoint.  She’s claiming power, not describing the overwhelming beauty of clouds, the sky, the setting.  I think she misses the glory.

That’s ok, because her other works have glory to spare. 

She took such joy in her simple subjects, set buoyantly, spaciously on the canvas.  There is a thrilling question implicit in her flowers and New Mexican landscapes, adobes, and skulls – how can this be this so beautiful? That curiosity drove her in and around her subjects, relentlessly turning them in her mind as she came to understand them, never relinquishing the happiness she found in them.  Her work was a wedding of youthful, crazy love, unburdened by assumptions, and a mature and demanding eye that would not let her off easy in their depiction.  

The other O'Keeffes, the ones that move me, are deeply committed attempts to answer a very pure and human question: how come this object is so beautiful?

There is glory in those paintings, in both the subjects and settings, but also in the painter’s eyes.

The feminist manifesto is the claim that women are fully human.  Inherently women have no limits to their capacity, for instance, to be moved by joy and beauty, thrilled by glory, curious and connected to this world.  The innocent questions driving hard at the core of O’Keeffe’s best work are asked in order to understand nature, out there – what is this thing that moves me? – and within – what does this beauty, this glory look like to me?  Asked with enough commitment the answer yields something about the scope of our humanity.  She abandoned the question in the clouds, giving up, for the moment, a little bit of her enormous capacity as an artist, as a human, ironically in service to the politics of being fully human.

Would I see it differently if I’d never seen her wild and truthful, intensely modeled images of flowers and New Mexico? Maybe I would have expected less in terms of art and appreciated “The Sky Above The Clouds” more in terms of politics.  Instead, I wanted it all.  Great art and great politics.  My innocent question:  Why not?

So, thinking about style, let’s turn to fashion.  Down the hall in the Art Institute, there was a nice exhibit of Soviet posters.  They were fun.  Can we leave it at that?

Soviet Poster from the 40's: STYLE IS CHARACTER, BUSTER!

The Sage Of Allston

How can I think of art without missing my dear friend Bill Shea, who seemed to be able to wrap his head around this stuff so comprehensively, so easily casting such a wide intellectual net, with so much fun?  Some day, maybe, if I can come to terms with him being gone, I’ll gather up the story of the Sage of Allston.  No one individual of his many, many friends has the whole, grand story of Bill.  No one individual could keep up with his restless, expansive mind, though all of us, his crazily diverse network of friends and family, got a huge kick out of him.  He gave us so much, illuminated parts of life and parts of himself and ourselves with his brilliance.  He was extraordinary and I miss him, again and again and again.

What would he have said about O’Keeffe and Didion?  I’m sure he would have had me laughing…thinking…making all sorts of unexpected connections…laughing again.

Feathers On the Water, Clouds In The Sky

These huge swans were only 25 feet away from my kayak when they took flight. The big whooshing, beating sound of their wings alerted me to them.

Up at our place in northern New York this summer we paddled way, way out into the wild on the Black Creek.  A pair of huge snowy white swans took off in front of my kayak. One of their feathers floated down to the water beside me.

A souvenir from the wilds of Black Creek.

From a child’s perspective the magnificence of the world stretches out from wherever you might be.  My son made up a poem  – a song, he called it – when he was about to turn six.  We were out on the lake, and he was rowing our tubby little boat.  The twenty-mile stretch of water was still and reflective.  He looked up at the white clouds floating low over us:

The sky is the lake

And the lake is the sky

With clouds

like stepping stones to forever.

Like the swan’s feather I picked it up, and when we got back to the cottage, I wrote it down.

The Lake Is The Sky