Disrupting Christmas: Part III

Finally, reclining on my luxury Mexican coach en route direct to Ciudad de Mexico, I’m feeling much better about how this little pet project is playing out.

After what I hope will be the saddest Christmas Eve of my life (completely self-inflicted I completely realize), everything’s been looking up, since those three Alabama state troopers joined me in the Montgomery bus station to arrest a passenger getting off the bus I alone was getting on.

I finally arrive in New Orleans at 6 in the morning Christmas Day and head straight to my hotel. I had called the day before to let them know about my schedule, and make sure it would still be ok to check in. . . the next morning. . .

Perhaps among the reasons the Old No 77 was recently named one of the best new city hotels in America, is they were most accommodating of my irregularity (and didn’t ask too many questions). The day staff had communicated with the night staff, so I hardly even had to introduce myself. Was given late check out and a first floor room. . .  where I quickly fell to enjoy the best four hours of sleep on this trip so far.

Christmas lunch beckoned!

While the Old No 77’s nationally acclaimed Caribbean creole restaurant Compere Lapin was another reason for choosing it as a homebase, I wouldn’t have opportunity to enjoy on this trip, as a Salem friend’s New Orleans’ family invited me to join them for Christmas lunch uptown.

Over roast beef and yorkshire pudding (salad after the main, cheese and fruit before dessert), I shared some of the peculiarities of my journey with my kind and curious hosts: so many questions! And me, so few answers. . .

A couple thoughts though are coming into focus:

  1. It’s not so much busses I like, but being chauffeured (and why I’m coming around to positive prospects of driverless cars).
  2. I know absolutely nothing about racism, except that I am afflicted by it.
  3. Choosing the hard and difficult thing is not superior to the pleasant and nice thing just because it’s hard and difficult.

The highilght of lunch, though? Cafe Brulot! A traditional New Orleans after dinner coffee, flambeed tableside.

A festive end to a festive Christmas, made especially so, by the deprivation of the nights before.

I get a ride to the station a little early to check out its mid-century murals depicting highligts of Louisiana history.

Then on to Houston, San Antonio, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, where I had a little run-in (not serious at all) with border control I’ll write about tomorrow. . . but now I rest, basking in the plush leather of my luxury coach as the Mexican landscape passes by. . .


Disrupting Christmas: Part II, Bethlehem manger > Montgomery floor

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Our driver to Atlanta, Yvette, perkily greets us leaving Charlotte at 3.30 in the morning of Christmas Eve Day. And, as she begins to describe our itinerary I begin to really question what I’m up to with this whole project.

Traffic into Atlanta will likely be light, Yvette tells us, as most people have hopefully already made it to where they need or want to be this Christmas Eve. . . which raises the question of why we’re on this bus? Where do we need or want to be and why aren’t we there already?

In some sense, it is exactly the bus where I want to be: in motion, with intention, plenty of time and space, getting “there” regardless of what or where there is.

But I’m tired and worn at this particular moment. I don’t really need to be going anywhere at all, and what I really want is to simply be snug.

Nevertheless, I do feel like the Greyhound is the modern equivalent of Mary and Joseph’s donkey. If they were heading to Bethlehem today, I’m pretty sure they’d be here with me on the floor of the Montgomery bus station.

And my Mary and Joseph experiences are increasingly troubling.


If the NY Port Authority was all organized chaos clearly consequent of holiday travel, the bus station in Richmond, VA, was just plain chaos.

We arrived wildly off-schedule – something like two hours, with the official Greyhound bus tracker showing arrival in Atlanta 4+ hours late. Our driver told us to leave our things on the bus as we’d be returning to the same. The attendant on the ground said we needed to collect our things as we were transferring to a new bus. . . yet another official suggested we could leave our things for now, but would have to collect them at some point in the future, and of course Greyhound was not responsible for any valuables. All this information was conveyed person to person, telephone style. No general announcements deemed worthy enough for all to hear. . .

According to the official schedule, we were supposed to have a two hour layover in Richmond, the beloved Capital of the Confederacy, a break which would have given me time to grab some award-winning bbq I’d sourced in the neighborhood and then cross the tracks to perambulate a portion of recently-in-the-news Monument Ave and contemplate the value of Civil War monuments.

But none of that was now possible as I had absolutely no idea how long we were staying in Richmond. Would they try to get us out as soon as possible to make up time? Were they contractually obligated to have a break of a specific duration? Were we waiting on a bus or driver to arrive? How far away were they?

Amidst all this chaos, I guiltily sought an assuring alliance with an obvious peer. While there had been no real displays of wealth or prestige amongst those of us boarding in New York, there did seem to be a variety of folks making the journey together: old and young, families of various shapes, humans of many colors. In Richmond, however, I distinctly felt my whiteness and my expectation of its privileges.  

We ran from one end of the station to the other as announcements were made about travelers not going to Raleigh and then travelers only going to Raleigh. At one point the announcement sounded more like “Riley,” which is different? But conflated our understanding of who was leaving from which gate. . . had something changed? Or did they just mispeak?

Seated in the station, re-arranging my bags, I bumped into a woman looking remarkably like Taystee from Orange is the New Black. I immediately apologized, though she defiantly held my gaze for an awkwardly long time before condescending to  excuse me, which I gratefully thanked her for. . .

Some two hours after arriving in Richmond, and a good twenty minutes after the Raleigh-only bus had boarded but not yet left, we fought through a bottleneck to board the bus heading to Atlanta. It was nearly full. . . I took the first seat I could find as there didn’t seem to be many more. . . someone mentioned there was one in the middle of the back row? Is that where the infamous decapitation happened? My ally went to investigate. . . there was indeed a seat in the middle of the back row but it was currently being occupied by a pitbull. . . J. would take another bus. . .

I’m sure there are lovely places in Charlotte, NC, aka the Queen City, but the bus station at three in the morning is not among them. The pitbull owner and I bonded over this.

A group from our cohort sought assistance from the info desk. . . anticipating that we were soon going to be asked to show documentation that we as a group were not in possession of, our thinking was the powers that be should have this information, so they could start making a plan. . .

But as the info desk officer continued to explain that our driver should have given us a reboarding pass when we got off, I frustratingly interrupted to again say that that was indeed our problem: we had asked our driver for reboarding passes and he said he did not have any to give us, and that indeed, we did not need any.

His response: “If you’d listen to me, I’m giving you some good information.”
Mine: “Unfortunately, it’s not useful.”
In turn: He turns away from our entire group, and asks someone in line next to us what their question is.

With all these delays and confusions I couldn’t but think of the Japanese train company that recently apologized for departing 20 seconds yearly and causing great inconvenience to many. Why can’t we have nice things like that in America? Our corporations don’t have enough cash?

In the end, we all just got back on the bus without showing any documentation at all, but not without much kerfuffle.

And arrived in Atlanta two hours late, requiring me and at least a dozen others to remake our Christmas plans.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Screenshot 2017-12-24 at 18.56.20

Instead of Christmas Eve in New Orleans, a cozy bed in a boutique hotel, Christmas cabaret at the Ace, and midnight mass in the Garden Distric, I’m sitting on the floor of the Montgomery, AL, bus station.

[Reminder to research Montgomery bus riots.]

I will mention that I briefly entertained the thought of going ahead and flying this leg of the journey. . . for $200 I could get to New Orleans, through Charlotte, in time to do everything I had planned, but that just felt like cheating.

Instead, I was offered very, very many drugs in Atlanta, had a lovely conversation with a young actor from Montgomery (who thought I was 25!), and now find myself sitting on the grungy floor of the Montgomery bus station, laptop plugged into a wall socket. Except for a young Greyhound employee and a 19 year old mother of two trying to get back to them in Chicago, we are alone.

I had tried to find a church near the bus station here in Montgomery to go to Christmas Eve services, but such a prospect proved elusive on this desolate stretch of regional highway. As resourceful as I am, the Greyhound has brought me so low, I can’t even find a church in Alabama.

Echoing Christina Rossetti’s bleak winter, a bus station floor will have to suffice this muggy Alabama Christmas Eve.


Disrupting Christmas: Part 1

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

Tonay Vaccaro, Georgia O’Keeffe with “Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow” and the desert, 1960. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Courtesy of Tony Vaccaro studio


I wonder what Georgia O’Keeffe would have made of the New York Port Authority bus terminal this holiday weekend Saturday morning?

In my ongoing project to disrupt my major holiday celebrations by looking anew at their often overlooked fundamentals, I found myself in a Greyhound scrum for the first leg of an epic overland journey to Mexico City via New Orleans.

In some tellings of the Christmas narrative, and especially the ones I find most compelling, Christmas is a refugee story: a young unwed couple is compelled by a distant political force to  cross borders using inefficient transportation, and vulnerable to the hospitality of strangers. Indeed, it is the chaotic scarcity in Mary and Joseph’s journey, that God chooses, amongst all the other choices, to crossover from heaven to earth to be with us, Emmanuel.

I’m nowhere near fundamentalist enough to think I could actually follow in the biblical steps of Mary and Joseph and spend Christmas crossing from Israel to Palestine dependent on the hospitality of strangers, especially in today’s political climate, but another border crossing has beckoned: America’s own to the south.

With the exception of a college mission trip to Nuevo Laredo, just across the border, I’ve never been to Mexico. Indeed, I’ve been a little afraid to do so: violence, poverty, chaotic scarcity.

And yet I keep reading about Mexico City: innovative restaurants, exciting cultural institutions, a world-class city on my own continent, utterly other-ed into obscurity.


Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887-1986). Brooklyn Bridge, 1949. Oil on Masonite, 48 x 35 7/8 in. (121.8 x 91.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Bequest  of Mary Childs Draper, 77.11. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)


On this dank, gray Saturday morning in New York, the Port Authority is jammed. Never a paragon of order or elegance, today lines are so long and twisting and many they merge and morph and mass

“Is this line for Baltimore or Richmond?”
“Atlanta,” is the reply, which is good because that’s where I’m going.

There are in fact two lines – both the same? – for Atlanta, and to the right of those is one for Richmond, and all three are so long their ends are the beginnings of the Baltimore lines.

Does it matter that the sign says “Long Island?” A young hispanic man with facial tattoos assures me, it does not. I’ll have to take his word for it, as the only other official looking person I’ve seen is escorting a blind man, and his face unhelpfully communicates simply terror/confusion.

We’ve been standing in line for half an hour. At the time of our scheduled departure, we get our first bit of news, our bus is on the way. . . 45 minutes later, still standing with miraculous calm, order and absolutely no information whatsoever, our bus arrives. We board four by four; line 1, line 2. I’m head of my Line 1 boarding quartet, and as we wait the jolly gatekeeper finds it an auspicious time to mention a man recently flying through the window of a Greyhound bus. . . it’s my turn to board before I can ascertain whether this tale is a rationale for our delay or simply an odd attempt to strike up a conversation. . 

[Google searching suggests there is historical precedent for such defenestrations, but none (that I can find) recorded this weekend.)


Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887-1986). Blue #2, 1916. Watercolor on paper, 15 7/8 x 11 in. (40.3 x 27.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Bequest of Mary T. Cockcroft, by exchange, 58.74. (Photo: Sarah De Santis, Brooklyn Museum)


I embark relatively early and so my impromptu strategy for attracting a desirable seat-mate is to spread out across my extra space materials from the press packet for the Peabody Essex Museum’s current exhibition, Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style.

In this way, it’s unlikely anyone will ask me to move my important paperwork, unless they have some reason to comment on it: e.g. maybe there’s an O’Keeffe scholar on board! Or at least someone who saw the exhibition when it was at at the Brooklyn Museum?

Surprisingly, though, this bus is not full and I now find myself with an empty seat as I freely continue my diligent labor unencumbered. . .

The duo in front of me, however. bonded over the Instagram account @Pats.Pants. Apparently, one of them is wearing a pair of pants that looks like Pats, but he actually just got them at Marshalls last night.. . stay tuned!


Georgia O’Keeffe, The Mountain, New Mexico, 1931. Oil on canvas. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase 32.14 (c) The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Born in Wisconsin and trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, O’Keeffe left New York City, and the established American Modernists she had become associated with there, for New Mexico where she lived out her life with great intentionality and completed many of her most iconic works.

The exhibition at PEM is not a retrospective of these best-ofs, and anyone looking for the same will likely be disappointed in this broad overview of O’Keeffe as creator, particularly as expressed through her clothing.

There are paintings to be sure, but also photographs and drawings, and shoes and clothes O’Keeffe bought (from designers like Pucci, Marimekko and Balenciaga that each look remarkably like what O’Keeffe would wear but not much at all like what Pucci, Marimekko or Balenciaga would make) as well as clothes it’s believed O’Keeffe sewed herself.

I found especially powerful experiencing O’Keeffe’s transitions, from the rigidity of her New York work, to the expansiveness and light of her life in New Mexico.

“For more than 70 years, Georgia O’Keeffe shaped her public persona, defied labels and carved out a truly progressive, independent life in order to create her art,” says Austen Barron Bailley, organizing curator and George Putnam Curator of American Art.



It’s not lost on me that there’s some resonance amongst these three threads: my current travels, O’Keeffe’s artistry and the meaning of Christmas.

Confronting fear, setting intentions, crossing over, transforming.

“O’Keeffe drew no line between the art she made and the life she lived,” notes guest curator Wanda M. Corn. “She strove to make her life a complete work of art, each piece contributing to an aesthetic whole.”

Which sounds to me a lot like the part of the Christmas story I’m currently trying to incarnate.

And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid!”

Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887-1986). Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock–Hills (Ram’s Head and White Hollyhock, New Mexico), 1935. Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in. (76.2 x 91.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Bequest of Edith and Milton Lowenthal, 1992. 11.28. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style

On view at PEM through April 1, 2018


Disrupting Thanksgiving

What is Thanksgiving?

Nothing brings the question into focus quite as profoundly as being in Paris to celebrate.

I’ve been quite intentional this year about wanting “to reset” my holidays: digging deep for fundamental principles in order to extract surprising truths.

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a family holiday. A time to gather with folks we’re grateful to know and love. And for many the characteristics of the ritual are clearly prescribed: a meal of Turkey/Sweet Potato/Cranberry + your own family favorite, football, going around the table recording for everyone’s judgment what you’re thankful for, preparing to stand in line to help our largest corporations stay in the black, not going to work. . .

I’ve always preferred, however, the narrative that Thanksgiving is a memorial to the Pilgrims’ first harvest. Their time in the foreign wilderness of North America had been exceedingly difficult. They’d struggled and adapted, but nevertheless, persisted. A native population was there too, and while the extent to which they enabled the Pilgrim’s success is debatable, their presence in our forefathers’ daily lives is not.

In this way, in my mind, it’s not the turkey itself that’s important, but the struggle to prepare it. And it’s not about having our most intimate family at the table, but making room and opportunity to include our extended family, whether by birth or choice.

And so, with all this in mind, I set out to disrupt Thanksgiving.

I wanted to be displaced in a foreign land.
I wanted a meal of great ritual and celebration
I wanted to embrace struggle, to include others, and to see/do/be something new and more.

And so, I came to Paris.

Though not the most exotic or frankly even foreign of foreign lands (at least in my mind), it is a place where food is celebrated and I like to eat. I also like to imagine that the struggle to navigate the French food landscape of boucherie, boulangerie, fromagerie, and supermarché coupled with the native population’s accommodation of my linguistic limitations would mirror the preparations of that first North American fête.

Also, on board for this disruption: a friend who’s never been to Europe. For her this truly is a new experience in a new land. A land she tells me she initially thought she’d just tick off her list but now finds herself saying, “Next time I’m here.” Rounding out our trio, a Frenchman who’d never celebrated Thanksgiving and frankly hadn’t really even heard of it. He was just thankful for a meal with long lost friends.

Our canvas was blank; we could create virtually any kind of experience we wished: our only limitations were our imaginations and the capacity of the European oven.

First stop: Le boucherie. We went to at least three. A whole turkey was out of the question, so chicken or quail? Escallope de dinde? Veal? It was in the third shop we spotted an impressive cuisse de dinde, a turkey’s leg and thigh, forming a satisfying centerpiece to our repast. . . C’est ça!

We bought patate doux and asperges, camembert for a cheese course, and a baguette to help it all along. The only cranberries we could find were dried. . . not sure what we’d do with those. . . also celery to replicate a version of a traditional family starter, “ants on a log.”

Back at chez nous, as I prepped the turkey, J. stuffed the celery with chevre and topped with dried cranberries forming a new thing rooted in the memory of the old: buche de fourmis. And, R. made buckwheat crepes, because. . . pourquois pas?

Our meal was simpler and smaller than the cliché, but all the elements were there: turkey and sweet potatoes and cranberries; struggle and adventure and invitation.

We spoke of how grateful and surprised we were to be together; of traditions and of dreams. We didn’t watch football, but streamed President Macron speaking to an assembly of French mayors. And, we didn’t play Qwirkle, but La Traderidera: a game R. had taught me and I had taught J.

What is Thanksgiving?

C’est ça.



All at Once upon a Time


The subject of the email read “immersive experience in an historic house” and went on in the body to quote “‘this ‘aesthetically visceral, intellectually challenging and emotionally unafraid original work’ sounds right up your alley.”

Indeed, over the past years I’ve had opportunity to experience a number of these immersive performances, where the action takes place all around, often unexpectedly, in non-traditional performance spaces and involves/requires a certain level of audience participation.

Researching the background of “All at Once upon a Time” the new work in question to be staged in the Peabody Essex Museum’s historic Gardner-Pingree House, I learned that some of these experiences even shared a pedigree, tracing their origins to New York based stage director Giselle Ty.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to think that much of the appeal of these happenings [to appropriate the newly voguish 60s euphemism] lies in the anticipation of the unknown. What will it be like to experience a dramatic performance in a domestic space? What will be required of me?

Once you’ve been there and done that though, then, well, there’s not a great deal of mystery to anticipate, except perhaps the particular narrative into which we’ll be thrust.

I happen to always enjoy time spent in new and interesting domestic spaces, and all the better if those spaces are grand and/or historic. After all, a home is our first and most frequent stage, the place where we first learn to perform the roles of family, gender and social hierarchy. Imagining the rich and varied propagation and subversion of those performances over time in a space is a beloved personal past-time.

So, I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never before been to the Gardner-Pingree House, [Yes, I know there are regular guided tours] but was delighted to have an immersive happening as excuse to do so.

I had no idea the narrative I was committing my evening to, but after affirming some house rules (e.g. “I promise not to stroke or steal other human beings, but I understand that gently nudging and physical contact might be part of the experience.”) and depositing my mobile in a PEM-branded muslin bag,  I eagerly and knowingly followed our expectedly mute guide’s wan directing hand to a seat on the floor of the grand house’s front parlor, transformed for our theatrical purposes by moody lighting and an impressionistic forest of trees constructed of raw lumber.

A school girl runs in and begins telling us in dense and scholarly language about the Northwest Coast, forests, and totems [reminding me that I really need to finish writing up those notes from PEM’s new contemporary native fashion show].

Before I have a chance to create context for this uncontextualized avalanche of images and multi-syllabics [post-performance research suggests the text comes from photographer William Reid’s 1968 exploration of decaying totems in British Columbia, “Out of the Silence”], that familiar wan hand guides me mid-soliloquy to an adjoining room where I’m eventually joined by four more of our party of 15.  

This room too has been unrecognizably transformed. Papers are everywhere: clothes-pinned to strings strung across the ceiling, scattered across the expansive table. Some are handwritten; some have been typed on a typewriter; some printed in familiar fonts. Some are in English, others are not. A handwritten card invites us to find a text that speaks to us, copy it, and share it with someone later. We’re here for awhile — no words are spoken though lots of words are read and written, and I struggle to make connections among them, hardly a discrete image let alone narrative of any complexity, so much stimulation! so hard to commit to focusing — until eventually our familiar guide returns with another note inviting us to meet her upstairs.

Totally and blindly committed to the guidance of our mysterious leader, we follow to an upstairs bedroom where another note placed upon a pile of strips of toile invites us to “unravel me,” revealing a ballerina in fetal position who begins to come alive with a violinist’s playing. Taking the ends of organza(?) tied to her wrists, we each are given the power/influence to manipulate her actions. A quick shake or graceful swing is reflected in the kick of a leg or wave of an arm. That sense of “control” or even co-creation is a misdirection though as it must be acknowledged our ballerina chooses and interprets each action at her will regardless of our action or desire.  

Eventually the violin player stops playing and therefore the dancer can no longer dance, and it’s time for us to be guided into another room.

Here we find proper seats, and a portable stage curtain, and a man running a soundboard. It’s almost like a traditional performance space, except of course we’re in the upstairs room of an historic house. We also discover that our presumed singular guide comes in multiples. She’s a twin! And then the curtain moves revealing more of our original group twinning us on the other side of the room. Now newly rejoined in an approximation of what we once we were, we together watch our guides dress as monkey and bear and perform an interpretive dance with bananas to a ragtime recording, the significance of which is honestly wholly lost on me. Are these archetypes? stereotypes? simply an absurdity? Definitely racial overtones. . .

The rest of the groups that splintered from our formative forest in the front room, rejoin us in this newly appropriated theatre. The ballerina and violinst are there. A lute player too. And others I don’t recognize. There’s a dance party! (I worry about the bouncing of the historic floor) and balloons!

And then a return to the room in the back of the house where we started for hot cider and snacks and conversation.

How different all of our experiences were! And so many questions about what we just experienced, where it came from and what it meant.

I suspect it’s this post-performance conversation that is intended to be the substance of “All at Once Upon a Time…(or Variations on the Theme of Disappearing)”. A time for us to make meaning from the rich material that’s been collected for us and presented to us.

Perhaps not much different the meaning-making that’s been being performed in the Gardner-Pingree’s dining room and parlor for centuries?


Thank You for Coming/Wear Clean Socks

My calendar reminder read, “Wear Clean Socks.”

I don’t remember typing those words, though I do remember agreeing to attend at the same time an immersive dance performance at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art,  “Thank You for Coming: Attendance.” Assuming these events must be one in the same, I went ahead and made sure my feet were shod with store-new crimson stockings, just in case.

“Thank You for Coming” is a series of new works by the choreographer Faye Driscoll, heralded by the New York Times as a “startlingly original talent,” which explores the question: “How do we perceive ourselves as participants in the co-creation of our reality?”

Performance notes read:

“Performed in the round, Attendance [the first in the Driscoll’s three part series] opens with a tangle of five dancers communally bound by their reliance on one another.  [. . .] Taking place on stage with a limited-capacity audience, the work also invites viewers into the “weird” and wonderful universe of this “postmillenium, postmodern wild woman” (critic Deborah Jowitt), as they become participants by wearing or holding the offbeat objects that also serve as the dancers’ props. Throughout the performance, the joyful intimacy mounting on stage envelops the audience as well, creating a beautiful shared identity.”

Interesting. . .

Indeed, upon entering the theatre we’re asked to prepare ourselves for a new kind of experience.

“Please remove your shoes and jackets before going on stage and sit as close to the platform as you can.”

Thus liberated of our constraining affectations of humanity (or cunningly stripped of our protective armor?) 120 of us sit on the stage, some on risers, some on the floor, circling a bare raised platform, the unused seats of the audience before or behind us, and wait, school assembly style, wondering who and what and how and why and when. . .

The performers, recognizable not so much by their bare feet or comfortable street wear but their fluid movement and toned muscles, circle and observe.  I suspect they go unnoticed by most, until they file into a row of empty seats in the darkened audience space and sing to us about the fire exits.

Attention then moves to that central platform, where the performers construct with their bodies complex, grotesque, beautiful, unexpected, interconnected forms. Twisting and straining from one structure to the next, feet serve as platforms and handholds and crowns; mouths are by turns sensual and violent.

Photo by Maria Baranova.
Photo by Maria Baranova.

My seatmate says it reminds her of the immigration crisis raging across Europe: connections formed, strained, broken, and reformed with force, regret, fear and ecstasy.

And just like the arbitrary national borders of Europe, the arbitrary borders of the performance space are no match for the writhing life within. Eventually the performers, connected in a human rope hand to foot, roll off that dedicated performance space and literally into our laps. Even my new clean red socks become part of that living form, as a performer reaches to grab my foot, pulling me in with his outward looking motion.

And while I and others are pulled in, and the boundaries of us and them and this and that are being transgressed, the now unnecessary platform as performance space is disassembled from underneath, revealing benches, on which various portions of the audience are encouraged to rearrange themselves, jockeying for position, heightened only by the distribution of props (plastic flowers, golden shower caps, black lace). By the time I’m contemplating what heroic act the mysterious, no doubt phallic?, wooden mace I’ve been handed will  indict me to, I realize the performers have changed clothes before our eyes are now gasping for breath. Dying little deaths their once insatiable virility never suggested possible.

But then there’s more.

The strains of a guitar resurrect a new act. The “stroboscopic” stepping of the dancers suggest a club? They greet each other with joy, intrigue, disgust and fear. And what are the words the guitarist/sound technician is singing? Adam, Puna, Heather, Jon a tha aa n. Chris. Chris. Chris. Our names! One hundred and twenty of them forming the lyrics of the song, animating and enlivening not just the performative action at the center, but our own reaction to its substance as we are it.

Then a new act making use of those pre-distributed props. There’s chaos and confusion. Rushing and grabbing. Are those veils and formal formations of humanity representations of ritual? “I need the flute” a performer asks my section of the audience. A few beats until I realize she’s asking for my mis-identified wooden phallus. Whew! It’s only a flute.

Ropes are threaded from this side to that, separating the golden shower caps from the plastic flowers. Dividing space, creating boundaries and structure where once there was only freedom and connection.

Then darkness as action moves to the ground and the performers act individually from the margins of the space, straining towards the middle their clothing falling way, their stockings stretched from here to over her head.

A nucleus forms. There’s a lightening of a kind. That intersections of ropes once used to divide begin to rise from the floor, creating a canopy under which the dancers begin circling in a simplified contra style. In and out and round about, with each opening of the circle an unarticulated invitation to join, until, of course, a hand is extended in an explicit invitation, and members of the audience join one by one and then more and more, until, is it true?, the performers have removed themselves completely, standing to the side, as those who started the night thinking themselves members of the audience inhabit and perform the central creative act.

I think I’m going to start wearing clean red socks everyday.


Thank You for Coming: Attendance
Oct 9-10
8 pm


Animaris Percipiere (2005). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis
Animaris Percipiere (2005). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

Reluctantly, I made my way to the press opening for Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum.

I had grown skeptical of the hype that brought an estimated 15,000 gawkers to a preview of Theo’s kinetic “dream machines” at Crane’s Beach and the shallow awe that so often accompanies adjacency to unexpected functionality (i.e. “It Moves!” a la Frankensein’s “It’s Alive!”).  

Assuming I was girding myself for the apotheosis of the equivalent of an engineering dissertation by a grand old institution desperate for adjacency to techie cool, I sated my intellectual curiosity in advance with the recently arrived fall issue of Cowley Magazine, dedicated to the theme of Creation.

Theo Jansen & Animaris Siamesis (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.
Theo Jansen & Animaris Siamesis (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.

And so it was, that as I took my first sips of press-sating wine in the Asian Garden I was thinking of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”), and pondering anew what it means to be created, to create, and for creation and creator to be in relationship with each other.

This would be the first time I’d hear the artist speak for himself. The first time I’d see the beests move. The first time to see the creator in relationship with his creation.

Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis
Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

And lo it came to be that it was good!

If Hopkins’ world is charged with the grandeur of God, Jansen’s is charged with compressed air held in “lungs” of Belgian sparkling “SPA” water bottles, also imagination, a lot of math, and unapologetic hubris.

Jansen’s goal is nothing short of creating an entirely new species, and the vocabulary he uses to describe his creations reinforces this premise. The beests on display at PEM are “fossils,” extinct specimens from the beest’s long evolution which is chronicled in a family tree occupying an entire wall of the gallery.

Photo by Federico Davoine. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by Federico Davoine. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Over time the beests have developed various kinds of feet, even “sweat glands” (a means of lubricating joints while in motion), but most striking of all, they’re now procreating! as Jansen has made available online their mathematical “DNA” and encouraged engineering students the world over to tinker, adapt, and 3-d print.

The natural world is more than the sum of its parts and so too the Strandbeests are more than PVC piping and zip ties. Though the beests move without will or even necessarily power of their own, they strut and swagger with such personality one can’t help but smile in that way a toddler learning to walk reminds us of the joy of discovering where our legs might take us.

Theo Jansen’s hands & plastic pipes (2010), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.
Theo Jansen’s hands & plastic pipes (2010), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.

The Franciscan monastic Richard Rohr has written regarding creative output: “We don’t need a reason for art. Beauty is for beauty’s sake. Art and music are not simply objects, but an experience of opening to mystical awareness. “

Indeed, Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests are more than simply beautiful objects. They remind us of the power of the creative impulse, the joy of creation, and the complexity of life.

But can their creator ever give them life?
Or is their power, like Frankenstein’s, to remind us of what it means to be created to create.


Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen
On view at PEM through January 3, 2016
Exhibition travels to Chicago and San Francisco

Animaris Umerus (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands. Photo by Lena Herzog.
Animaris Umerus (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands. Photo by Lena Herzog.

An American Epic

It’s rare, wandering Salem’s world-class Peabody Essex Museum, for me to have a feeling of familiarity. Indeed, becoming familiar with the far away and/or long-ago is part of the reason I wander those halls in the first place.

So, it was especially strange to encounter references to my hometown in the labels for “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood,” the first major exhibition of the Kansas City artist in 25 years.

Thomas Hart Benton Self Portrait With Rita, 1922 Oil on canvas 49 × 39 3⁄8 in. (124.5 × 99.9 cm) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney, NPG.75.30 Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
Self Portrait With Rita, 1922
Oil on canvas
49 × 39 3⁄8 in. (124.5 × 99.9 cm)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney,
Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

In my childhood, I had known Benton as an epic muralist, prominent in downtown banks and department stores, but his World War II propaganda, representations of the American West, and commercial work for Hollywood were all new to me.

At the press opening, when I’m usually thinking about what intellectual connections I can create to make the faraway and/or long ago nearer and clearer, I was drawn instead to the social connections that might be possible, bringing together in the faraway, communities once known to me by their nearness.

I also have a special affinity for extending invitations, seeing in that vulnerable act of generosity the seed of creation, and in the acceptance of said invitation the assumption of the risk imperative to its possibility.

So, after the press opening, instead of typing up notes and thinking deep thoughts in anticipation of writing a “review,” I took steps towards planning an “event:” Benton and Missourians in Salem.

Thomas Hart Benton New England Editor, 1946 Oil and tempera on gessoed panel 30 × 37 in. (76.2 × 94 cm) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection— Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 46.1456 Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
New England Editor, 1946
Oil and tempera on gessoed panel
30 × 37 in. (76.2 × 94 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection—
Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 46.1456
Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Myth-making is a central theme of the show, with multiple explorations of stories we create for ourselves about where we come from and where we’re going. Epics are, after all, about journeys, expanding one’s home turf, interacting with the other. There’s risk, and possibility, and attempts to make sense of difference. 

I see this active myth-making most acutely in the propaganda work, where caricatures of Japanese and African Americans eschew any beauty or humanity, focusing instead on dangerous threats of an unknown outside.

When confronted with the otherness of the landscape of the American West, however, Benton seems to exaggerate the beauty of its foreignness; opportunity outweighing threat.

Thomas Hart Benton Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967 Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel 30 1/2 x 38 in. (77.5 x 96.5 cm) Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1989.2.10. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967
Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel
30 1/2 x 38 in. (77.5 x 96.5 cm)
Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1989.2.10. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

And Hollywood? Other than Delphi and its oracle, has there been a more successful mythmaker in the history humankind?

“Benton developed a modern cinematic painting style to communicate epic narratives as memorably as the movies of his day,” says Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art. “He wanted to capture the feel of motion pictures on canvas: the illusion of three-dimensional space, rhythmic motion and the glow of projected light.”

Thomas Hart Benton Hollywood, 1937–38 Oil on canvas 56 × 84 in. (142.2 × 213.4 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist, F75-21/12 Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N
Thomas Hart Benton
Hollywood, 1937–38
Oil on canvas
56 × 84 in. (142.2 × 213.4 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist, F75-21/12
Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N

I too had grand dreams for my “event,” harnessing the movement of people across a land, capturing affinities of nearness in the land of the other.

And yet despite extending far-reaching invitations, I fear, in the end, fear won. We were a mere handful of classmates and cousins, risking little more than sharing a morning filled with beauty and opportunity.

Perhaps when “American Epics” opens at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City on October 10 some of you based there will extend an invitation to an-other to explore a beautiful epic?

Thomas Hart Benton The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927–28 From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920–28 Oil on canvas 60 1⁄4 × 42 1⁄8 in. (153 × 107 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the Artist, F75-21/10 Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927–28
From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920–28
Oil on canvas
60 1⁄4 × 42 1⁄8 in. (153 × 107 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the Artist, F75-21/10
Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

A writer’s life

As frustrating as it seems, especially in the moment, life must have challenge, especially if you, like me, like to tell stories about it.

Most often we hear about the challenge of the writer’s block, the fear of failing to improve with our primitive markings the purity of the blank page (cave wall), or committing to a story that might not turn out to be ideally suited to achieving our dreams.

I haven’t written anything for a long time, though I don’t think the reasons for this are the above. Instead, the trouble’s been, I’ve been so busy accumulating stories I just haven’t had a chance to write any of them down!

The backlog goes back at least to the humanistic seder I hosted on Good Friday. It includes dinner parties featuring peking duck, Dutch poffertjes and a banquet inspired by a soundtrack of pre-Khmer Cambodian rock and roll. I attended an extraordinary world premier by the classical music world’s current wunderkind, Matt Aucoin, and made a cross country culinary pilgrimage to dine at the trailblazing Chez Panisse. I was inducted into the Fellowship of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and spent a weekend in rural Vermont leaving cocktail parties in chicken coops in my wake.

Indeed, I’m writing this paragraph from a shady Montreal garden where an immigrant DJ is ensuring my Fourth of July has more French EDM than yours. Shouldn’t I engage someone in conversation? Make a story, rather than privately muse on the challenges of storytelling?

It’s a long-held writer’s creed, that a story doesn’t count if you don’t write it down. Eat everything you kill. By this estimation the past several months have been pretty indulgent? Self-serving? Profligate?

By choosing not to write for whatever reasons, I am in some sense diminishing these experiences value.

And that’s not because I’m failing to publish them, and personally benefit from dozens of you being convinced of my very unique life.  The problem is I’m not honoring these stories nee experiences, failing to reflect upon and draw connections among people and happenings, imbued with the potential of radical change.

In this way, the accumulation of stories for the purpose of personal entertainment is akin to accumulating hats, or magic tricks, or rabbits: a wasteful illusion.

A story, on the contrary, should not be a mere gimmick but an innately honorable repository of meaning and a vehicle for revelation and revolution.

And so, on this day celebrating a revelation of independence, I choose to break from the chase and do the work.

Vive la revolution!

Reflections on Pilgrimage

[Notes for my reflection on Pilgrimage presented Sunday, June 14, 2015 at Salem’s Grace Episcopal Church’s Celtic meditation.]

21 And continuing on Jesus saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Matthew 4:21-22English Standard Version (ESV)

The ancient and living El camino de Santiago, the way of St James (or St. Iago as he’s known in Spanish), is I like to think a continuation of St James’s story which begins in the gospel of Matthew when Jesus calls Zebedee’s son from his worldly work at home, to a heretofore unknown holy work in the world.

Church legend tells us James continued on very far from this getting up and going from the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Even beyond sharing in Jesus’s provincial ministry in Paelstine, James ventured to the very ends of the earth to share with the world what Jesus had shown him. In the first century, that meant going as far as spain and portugal on the Iberian peninsula.

Eventually, through many trials and tribulations – historic, legendary and universally disputed – James’s relics became safely ensconced in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, some 20 miles from the Coast of the Atlantic Ocean and 3000 miles from the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus first called James to the Way.

The site too eventually joined Rome and Jerusalem as one of the three major pilgrimages of the nascent Christian World. At its height in the 11th and 12th centuries more than a million people a year left their homes to walk to the end of the world, by some estimates that means a fifth of Europe’s entire population walked the way each year.

They did so in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia as it defines pilgrimage, to visit some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.

These pilgrims were very often in desperate search of hope and healing, abandoning homes, fleeing pasts, working for a tangible and literal salvation.

The black death and protestant reformation disrupted many systems and mindsets that had contributed to the popularity of pilgrimages to the extent that by the 1980s only a few dozen pilgrims were trickling into the pilgrim’s office in Santiago each year.

But then something changed. In every year, since 1989 more pilgrims have walked the way than the year before. In 2011, the year I made my pilgrimage for nebulous, unarticulated reasons, nearly 180,000 other modern pilgrims did the same. Walking at least the last 100km into Santiago, checking in with the Pilgrim’s office, and recording their journey as “religious” or “religious and other”. Last year, 237k did so.

Practically this increasing popularity means that when walking the Camino today, very much I imagine like our medieval forebears, you’re never alone. There are pilgrims literally and figuratively before you and behind you, beside you, and when staying in a fully booked pilgrim’s hostel, or albergue on bunk beds above and below. Pilgrimage is never a solo venture.

These modern pilgrims come from all over the world [I met several Koreans] for all sorts of reasons. Young and old, as individuals and as families and as families of choice, religious but predominately not.

Indeed, virtually no one I met was interested in venerating relics or discharging religious obligations as many prevailing but now perhaps archaic definitions of pilgrimage would suggest is a pilgrim’s motivation. Rather, even the most secular holiday-maker couldn’t help but acknowledge the transformative potential of a far-reaching journey made with intention and faith.

As I walked the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port at the base of the French Pyrenees, where most modern pilgrims begin their journey, through the Rioja, across the Meseta and into verdant Galicia, I found myself singing to myself that 1988 song by the Scottish duo the Proclaimers, “I would walk 500 hundred miles.”

In the song, 500 hundred miles is a statement of hyperbole. i.e “It’s ridiculous to think I’d ever walk 500 miles, but for the sake of argument I would if I had to because I’m gonna be. . .”

The grammarian in me recognizes these are conditional, future statements. They express desire and expectation, but not a presence or action. They’re figurative; no one has any intention of going anywhere .

As a pilgrim literally walking 500 miles, though, I had little mental patience for the future or conditional. With each step of each days journey adding up to those 500 miles I could not help but be present in my presence of being, not just a pilgrim, but more fully myself.

And it’s this active beingness that I’ve come to believe is the great revelation of pilgrimage. It’s not about reaching a destination, or achieving a benchmark, getting a certificate, or ticking some epic journey off a bucket list. Rather, it’s the willingness to go in the first place, to be sensitive to that subtle often nonsensical call to leave behind your fish nets and then to have the faith and will to keep going, especially when it’s hard or painful or you question why you even decided to go in the first place. . .

Indeed, now that I have a couple capital P pilgrimages in my history, I’m coming to realize they’re really more like retreats, rest days on the great pilgrimage of life, times to reflect and renew before going back to the far-reaching work of life, ever more sensitive to the inevitable call to get up and go.

Each evening all across northern Spain, in chapels and cathedrals, campgrounds and restaurant terraces, pilgrims pray together an ancient prayer linking their journey with those past and future. I’ve slightly modified it for us and would like to conclude my reflection with this Pilgrim’s Blessing circa Salem, Mass, 2015.

Oh God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, and who sent your son Jesus to call Zebedee’s son James and all our sisters and brothers to go into the world to do your work, we ask that you watch over us your servants, as we make our own pilgrimages .

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that with your guidance we may arrive safely at the end of the Road and enriched with grace and virtue return safely to our homes filled with joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.