Death over Dinner

What’s the most important and costly conversation Americans aren’t having?

According to a group of medical and wellness leaders, it’s how we want to die.

If 75% of Americans say they want to die at home, why do only 25% of them do?

As a consequence of the United States’ unique profit-first health care, religious taboos associated with death and the afterlife, and, I would contend, a general culture that shuns any sign of vulnerability, most of us aren’t prepared mentally, emotionally, spiritually, relationally or financially for our inevitable deaths.

[And, of course, Americans aren’t unique in their struggle to come to terms with death and dying, but as I live in the United States and these are the complexities and realities I and my community are navigating, I think it’s worth specifying.]

Enter: “Death over Dinner

It all started with a 2013 University of Washington graduate course called “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death.” Since that first course, they’ve facilitated and tracked over 500 Death Dinners in 20 countries. . . including one last Sunday in Salem.

Ever a sucker for highly organized experimental gatherings incorporating food, drink, and big ideas, I couldn’t resist the urge to start a shared google sheet and send an invitation to have dinner and talk about death. . .

Our evening would span essentially three parts.

Part I

We’d gather under the pergola to get to know each other. Of our twelve, some were family and some were strangers. All of our bodies were in different states of deterioration. Some of us were in the midst of loss, others could only imagine. Essentially we shared nothing, except our humanity.

One of our twelve signed up to bring a cocktail. I had suggested Painkillers, created on the island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, an odd assortment of Pusser’s rum, pineapple, orange and cream of coconut. Another brought oysters we taught each other to shuck in situ, finding joy and sustenance in the sharing of knowledge and bearing witness to the window between life and death bivalves offer the industrious and adventurous.

On the kitchen island were arrayed an assortment of images related to death and dying. From Blake and Goya to the outsider artist Gregory Warmack and the Buddhist Wheel of Existence, we each selected one that spoke to us in some way, and then used that image as an invitation to introduce ourselves and our relationship to the evening’s topic.

Part II

We then moved into the darkened dining room, where our image cards also served as our place cards, arbitrarily but decidedly assigning each her place (oddly, we ended up segregated by gender).

Once settled, we were invited to remember those we love but see no more by lighting a candle in their honor. As the room grew brighter with the memory of family and friends, mentors we never met and beloveds we hardly knew, our host led us in the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

In the kitchen, a buffet feast awaited: fresh spring vegetables bursting with life and a play on oyakodon, a traditional Japanese dish, literally parent and child, featuring chicken and eggs. Our version was a fricasee of young, organic, free-range chicken stained with turmeric, saffron and chili, served with hard boiled eggs marinated in a cilantro chimichurri, as well as a whole black sea bass served with caviar. Which came first. . . in life we are in death. . .

Back at the table, our cards had yet one more purpose. On the back of each was an invitation to ask a question, or pick a “Death” or “Life” reading.

Our questions came largely from the Death over Dinner folks: “Name the three person committee you would want consulted on any decisions about whether to continue life-prolonging treatments, like mechanical ventilation. Who would you want to chair that committee? Have you informed these people and put it in writing? If not, what’s stopping you?” and “If you could design your funeral, wake, or memorial, what it would be like?”

Our readings came from everywhere: The New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, the poetry of Rumi, scientific reports about cellular death and journalistic reports about trends in the funeral industry.

Be assured: we finalized no answers, drew no conclusions; we did not conquer death. . .

For one, our time was short.

Nevertheless, we did launch a conversation, identified tools to come back to, and broke through the fear that nearly all of us had identified at the beginning, not just of death itself but of talking about it.

Part III

We closed with a toast of eau de vie, the water of life, and broke into free-form conversation spilling into different rooms following different conversational threads. . .

The next day I circulated a workbook that offered practical guidance and resources for end of life decision making.

And yes, I’ve already started a google sheet collecting ideas for next time. . .

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

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Disrupting Easter

The plan was to have a fairly traditional (for me) observance of the Easter Triduum, the three day period between Maundy Thursday and Easter that recalls the passion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as recorded in the canonical gospels. Nothing too disruptive. . .

Nevertheless, true to form, I didn’t exactly stick to plan.

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In the past, I’ve gone in to Boston on Wednesday of Holy Week for an old-school service of Tenebrae. Latin for “darkness,” the ancient ceremony involves slowly extinguishing candles until the church is completely dark at which point a book is slammed shut symbolizing the earthquake that followed Christ’s death, and alerting the assembled to depart.

This year, Wednesday of Holy Week fell on the night my experimental contemplation group was scheduled to meet, so we decided to organize a service of Tenebrae for ourselves.

We gathered in the upper room of one of our own, surrounded by candles, and supported by a YouTube playlist of sacred music featuring performers as diverse as Mahalia Jackson and The St. Olaf College choir.

We each took turns reading. Together we entered into darkness and welcomed the stillness, until I dropped a big, heavy book shattering our calm and shocking our bodies and souls, in anticipation of the journey before us.

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Maundy Thursday has most recently been for me the most powerful of these highly symbolic Holy Week ceremonies.

While there’s much debate about what the word Maundy actually means and where it comes from, the ritual generally reanimates the Last Supper, where Jesus broke bread with his disciples, washed their feet, and gave a new commandment: “to love one another, as I have loved you.”

After touring the digital imaging studios of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I joined the Maundy Thursday service I’m accustomed to attending.

All was as it has been – beautiful and studied and appropriate – but I couldn’t help desiring a little disruption, especially considering the events being recounted are among the most disruptive in history.

Perhaps those at a different place in their journey would feel differently?

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Since facilitating a Passover seder for a hundred or so Southern Baptists in Florida some years ago, I’ve cultivated a tradition of hosting a Good Friday seder for a dozen or so adventurous seekers in Salem each year.

My version is more humanistic and overtly queer than that first “Jews for Jesus” version. While the Baptists took pains to locate the radical rabbi of Nazareth as the meaning and purpose of each symbol of the seder, we look instead to the order established to commemorate the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as an opportunity to explore stories of liberation and exile in our own lives and time.

While we acknowledge that there’s virtually no historical evidence to suggest the Hebrews were ever in Egypt, we can’t escape the reality that just as the Jewish people have throughout their history been called out from oppression under prophetic leadership, we too find ourselves in various cycles of bondage, exile and liberation.

We remember the atrocities of the holocaust, and assent that never again will we allow fear of each other to give rise to despotic leadership. We recognize the wandering of the Rohingya as a modern analog of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert and take responsibility for giving voice to their movement and existence. We remember that many American slaves had to cross the Ohio River to find their freedom in the North, just as Moses led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea to their promised land. And we put an orange on our seder plate, because legend suggests a prominent rabbi once proclaimed “a woman has much of a place in Jewish leadership as an orange on the seder plate.”

We find spitting out the seeds of homophobia, racism and misogyny to be very appropriate indeed to our observance of Passover. Thanks for the suggestion, Rabbi!

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For Easter, I had kindly been invited to join a fancy lunch reservation, but it didn’t feel quite right to me. . .

I understood why, when I got an email from Vinland, the controversial, hyper-local restaurant in Portland, Maine, I’d been wanting to try (check out their manifesto), advertising a seder on the third day of Passover (coincidentally Easter Sunday).

My plan was to head in to Cambridge on Holy Saturday for a Soulelujah! dance party and then wander through the night until arriving at the 4:30 am Easter Vigil at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist just outside Harvard Square.

(Un)fortunately, I thought it would be smart to take a nap Saturday evening and didn’t wake up until after the last train had departed Salem. . . so, no Easter for me this year. . .

Instead, Easter morning, I was on a Greyhound to Portland where I ate and drank my way through that foodie haven until Seder time.

Vinland uses only locally sourced ingredients – meaning no olive oil, no citrus, no pepper. . .

Our matzah was made in-house. We dipped our karpas (local mache) into vinegar instead of salt water (a sephardic tradition). There was one seating and a flat fee including table wine.

The Vinland Haggadah used much of the same source material my own did. I sat next to a young Thai family who had simply made dinner reservations not knowing what a seder was and a couple of siblings fairly new to the area, one Jewish, one not really.

Our table of fourteen was communal and friendly, despite being comprised of strangers who had vastly different relationships with the tradition.

We laughed and we sang. We lessened our joy by removing wine from our glasses for each of the ten plagues and we opened more bottles of wine as more plates of food came from the kitchen.

We exchanged cards, with intent to come back soon. . . if not Jerusalem, Vinland?

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But what of resurrection? Of new life and light? Would all my ritualized darkness and wandering have opportunity to be miraculously transformed?

Thank God for schism!

A quirk in church history means there are at least two Easters. Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on a different calendar than many western Christians and this year Orthodox Easter would follow the week after my own tradition.

I’m blessed with a Russian Orthodox church in the neighborhood, complete with blue onion domes, but am embarrassed to admit that in the decade or so I’ve lived nearby I’ve only been inside once, to a lecture.

This year would be different.

On Holy-Saturday-Take-Two, I organized a house reading of the play “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” depicting what’s reported to be the first act of American civil disobedience. Then, had a long, leisurely dinner, and post-dinner coffee, before wandering over to St. Nicholas’s for the 11:30 pm Easter Vigil.

The church was dark and full. There were babies and babushkas. Chanting and prostrating.

We stood and we sang and sang and stood and stood. Soon people started putting their coats on. . . but we hadn’t even lit our candles! We were still in darkness. . . it couldn’t be over yet?

Little did I know the service would continue until 3 in the morning (and we’d stand the whole time). We’d light our candles and process around the block chanting ancient hymns, accompanied by icons. Back at the church, the priest would knock on the closed doors, and they’d be opened to us, revealing a resplendent sanctuary bathed in light and incense.

Finally, Easter!

I was amazed that I’d been oblivious to all this glory for as long as I’d lived in the neighborhood, and then realized I’d been oblivious to it for as long as I’d been alive.

Easter at St. Nicholas reminded me that there is a promised land just on the other side, if I get up and go.

There is a light to illumine the darkness, if I stand at the door and knock.

That there is glory all around, if I’m not too oblivious to notice.

Disrupting Holidays: Purim Play

After a lifetime of not observing Purim, I made hamantaschen twice this year!

Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates Queen Esther’s saving of the Jewish people from Haman, who was planning to kill all the Jews. The story is recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther, with contemporary overtones I can’t help but notice.

Briefly I’ve paraphrased the story for folks more familiar with American politics than Jewish history:

Steve Bannon [Haman] said to President Trump [King Xerxes], “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from ours. . . it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to ban them. . .”

When Mordecai learned of this plot he said to his cousin Melania [Esther], “Do not think that because you are in the palace you alone will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?”

So Melania said, “I will go to him, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

And Melania went to the President and said, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For though I have hid it from you, I am one of them and you have sold me and my people to be destroyed.”

And because President Trump’s love for Melania was so great he chose to use his power to save an entire people instead of destroy them.

And so it’s been since 500 BCE, Jews and Jewish adjacent folk have been dressing up, drinking wine, and eating hamantaschen (i.e. triangular cookies said to resemble the tri-cornered hat worn by the evil Haman) to celebrate the time a beauty queen risked her life to save an entire people.

When I realized Purim this year fell on dia de noquis, I couldn’t resist throwing an impromptu fete honoring both Esther’s banquet and the Argentinian tradition of eating gnocchi on the 29th of each month, historically the day before payday.

I sent out last minute invitations by text, as the potatoes for the gnocchi went in the oven and the lamb for a fruity ragu went in the slow cooker.

The research regimen was intense: I reread Esther’s story, researched gnocchi recipes, and explored techniques for shaping hamantaschen.

The headcount was spotty; one “no” transformed into an invitation to do the same later in the week at theirs, with hours to spare I hadn’t heard from others, but in the end, we found a minyan of sorts, risking a Wednesday night to try something new.

 

Disrupting Holidays: PlayTime with Glitter + Ash

“You hate nothing you have made.”

glitter

Since 1549, Thomas Cranmer in the opening line of his [modernized] Collect for Lent in the Book of Common Prayer has been reminding us that the act of creation is actually a labor of love.

Serendipitously for my ongoing project of disrupting holidays, Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent, fell this year on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.

I find both observances awkward: Ash Wednesday for all its talk of the morbidity of dirt and Valentine’s for its apotheosis of coupling (whether homo- or hetero-).

I prefer to find in the imposition of ashes a sprinkling of cosmic star dust and in Valentine’s an invitation to connect with the Other.

Consequently, I aligned my disruptive observance of a holy Lent with the two year old movement of Glitter + Ash.

Instead of showing up at a church to have a priest remind me that “I am dust, and to dust I shall return,” I invited my extended community to a cocktail party: raising a toast to love that dares to speak, and marking ourselves with a sign of gratuitous liberation.

I realize the theology here is murky and I’ll let the theologians tustle over those fine points.

But for us, playing with glitter eye make-up purchased with much confusion and uncertainty from a local drugstore, was an opportunity to enliven in new and surprising ways two traditions that have shaped our lives.

Which reminds me of the Peabody Essex Museum’s latest exhibition, “PlayTime,” on view through May 6, 2018.

Reportedly, the first major thematic exhibition celebrating the role of play in contemporary art and culture, I found the exhibition challenging me to consider whether “art” should always finds its meet modifier in “fine;” whether the serious connoisseur is always superior to the provocative amateur (where amateur leans more on the Latin meaning of “lover” than the modern meaning of “unpaid”).

Exhibition curator and PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense Trevor Smith notes, “Play is a catalyst for creativity, where we make up the rules and learn how to negotiate and resolve conflict.”

Play involves a level of vulnerability and letting go of preconceived notions or boundaries.

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Martin Creed, Work No. 329 (detail), 2004, on loan from the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang, Vancouver. Photo by SITE Photography. (c) Martin Creed

Indeed, Martin Creed’s, Work No. 329, a room filled with bubble gum pink balloons, which opens the exhibition, disrupts the casual visitor’s assumption of just how much glee one should experience in a serious art museum, (or maybe even as an adult?) though the rules governing who can enter and how remain as draconian as ever.

I was especially struck by the seven pairs of car wash brushes displayed in the Museum’s most historic East India Marine Hall. The juxtaposition is provocative. The colors are fun. The air is charged with the brushes’ sound and breeze. But, we’re not allowed to touch. And, I was troubled, first, by the awkward placement of the brushes in the room feeling both temporary and just off somehow. . . then, by the displacement of both function and labor. Is Marx whispering as loudly in your ear as he is in mine?

Lara Favaretto - Simple Couples, 2009
Lara Favaretto, Coppie Semplici / Simple Couples, 2009, seven pairs of car wash brushes, iron slabs, motors, electrical boxes, and wires. On loan from Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Photo by Blaine Campbell

There is as much darkness and disgust in this examination of play, as there is fun and games; as many rules, as invitations. The sugar rush is as intense as the inevitable crash.

For, what every serious player comes to understand is that it takes a lot of work to understand the rules so well you can manipulate them. . . and then you realize just how much you’ve been being manipulated all along.

All play assumes some level of consent, even if simply the assumption that we’re all here for the love of the game.

With apologies to Cranmer [and other serious connoisseurs of theology] for playing with his prose, I can’t help but imagine a new Lenten Collect for PlayTime with Glitter + Ash. Think of it as a labor of love?

Always and Everlasting , who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost welcome all those who come: Create and make in us new hearts, that we worthily lamenting our limitations, and acknowledging our selfishness, may find in thee perfect freedom and liberation. Amen.

 

 

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.

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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.
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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

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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.

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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.)

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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!

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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.

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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!”

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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
www.pem.org

 

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.

 

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American Impressionist

Come summer, as temperatures rise and my patience for enduring them wears thin, the cool blues of an impressionist seascape can almost refresh as effectively as a cooling sea breeze itself, if I’m desperate and imaginative enough.

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Childe Hassam The Laurel in the Ledges, Appledore 1905 Oil on canvas 25 × 30 in. (63.5 × 76.2 cm) North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Promised gift of Ann and Jim Goodnight

This summer, if you haven’t escaped to some upper New England seaside locale, you too can can wallow in those metonymic blues at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum where more than 40 of the American impressionist Childe Hassam’s greatest oil paintings and watercolors of the coves, inlets, ledges and expansive seascapes of his beloved Appledore Island, will be on view through Nov 16. [There’s also of course the undeniable cool of industrial air conditioning.]

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Childe Hassam 1859 – 1935, United States Poppies, Isles of Shoals, 1891 Oil on canvas overall: 50.2 x 61 cm (19 3/4 x 24 in.) framed: 73.5 x 83.8 x 6.7 cm (28 15/16 x 33 x 2 5/8 in.) Gift of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz 1997.135.1 Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

For thirty years, beginning in 1886, Hassam, the earliest American champion of the Impressionist movement, regularly visited Appledore, the largest island of the Isles of Shoals located off the coasts of southern New Hampshire and Maine.
There, year after year, inspired by the Atlantic breeze as well as the garden of poet and local celebrity Celia Thaxter, Hassam created painting after painting, often depicting the same locations, altering the perspective or framing, with the same commitment and imagination as Monet and his haystacks.

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Childe Hassam Sylph’s Rock, Appledore 1907 Oil on canvas 25 × 30 in. (63.5 × 76.2 cm) Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, Gift of Charlotte E.W. Buffington in memory of her husband, 1908.5 © Worcester Art Museum. Photograph by Frank E. Graham

For this exhibition, an innovative, interdisciplinary team of art historians, marine scientists, and geologists teamed up to interpret and map Hassam’s island as expressed in his paintings. I assume the team’s findings are useful to their individual scholarly communities. But, as a lay visitor, I’ll confess to not really understanding how all that mapping and naming enhances my understanding of American impressionism or the artful, imaginative experience I expect to have when visiting an exhibition of the same.
In the same way, while 12 contemporary black-and-white photographs of Appledore today by Alexandra de Steiguer offer a different perspective of the island at a different time in a different medium, their relevance to my experience seems secondary. I understand why they’re there, but they’re not why I’m there.

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Childe Hassam Sunset at Sea 1911 Oil on canvas 34 3/4 × 34 1/2 in. (99.3× 87.6 cm) Private collection, Courtesy of Brock & Co., Concord, Massachusetts Photography by Clements/Howcroft

My favorite section of the show was the last, where we see Hassam himself altering his perspective and medium. Late in his career, after a visit to Paris, Hassam returned to Appledore and sought out new locations to paint in watercolor rather than oil. I found these works to be more emotionally adventurous and aesthetically moodier than the earlier more stereotypically impressionist work.

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Childe Hassam The Cove 1912 Watercolor on paper 14 × 20 in. (36.5 × 51 cm) Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas, John W. and Mildred L. Graves Collection, 1986.15

They raise questions for me: what changed? Why? And whether those changes were carried into other parts of his life.
By extension I can’t help ask the follow-up questions: are there locations just adjacent to those I tend to return to that have the potential to radically alter my perspective and experience? Are there unused tools that extend my current skill-set and open up new possibilities and opportunities?
I’ll confess to not really knowing who Childe Hassam was before previewing this show. Nevertheless, I can imagine we’re going to enjoy a number of hot summer days together.

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American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals
through Nov 16, 2016
pem.org

Faith in Food

The following was offered as a meditation at Grace Church, Salem’s Celtic Service on Sunday, June 26.

Those of you who know me well, might find it surprising to hear that as a child I was an extremely picky eater.

This is not to say I had allergies, or dietary restrictions or even that I was uncomfortable with extreme textures or flavors.

No, my issues, in hindsight weren’t gustatory at all. They were spiritual. I was afraid and proud.

In all honesty, there were more things I wouldn’t eat than I would. Every sandwich had to be deconstructed into its constituent parts for individual inspection, every menu parsed for offending ingredients. It was virtually impossible to eat at someone else’s home.

We all deal with food everyday. Whether we’re rich or poor, strong or struggling, good or bad, or more likely negotiating the spaces in between, we’re all making choices about what and how we feed ourselves.

And I believe these choices reflect our values, our aspirations, the communities we identify with and by omission the communities we do not.

All our hopes and fears are right there on our dinner tables, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

I don’t want to draw too broad or literal a stroke on this point, but as the circumstances of my life broadened. As I crossed borders – both literal and figurative – made myself vulnerable to the hospitality of strangers, and found myself in the position of offering hospitality to proverbial friends not yet made, my personal preferences ceased to be relevant.

If this thing has been called good by another, and is being offered to me as the same, who am I to reject it and call it unacceptable?

There are any number of extreme meals I could draw upon at this point to illustrate my meaning – goat’s head in Mongolia, elaborate feasts in France, simple suppers in Salem, a sip of water on the way to Santiago.

The meal, instead, I want to talk about is a fairly common one. In fact, it’s the one we’re all about to share together: the great thanksgiving, holy communion, the Lord’s Supper.

For a long time this was a meal I was not comfortable with. I did not understand its appeal. I did not view it as my own. I worried about the propriety of its execution. I feared its effectiveness even as I doubted its authority.

From my seat as disengaged voyeur, these were easy judgments to make. I hardly needed knowledge or experience, only preference and argument.

Once I removed myself from that self-imposed place of isolation and scarcity, though and finally accepted the invitation to come to the table itself and taste and see, my judgments, differentiations, “pickiness” ceased to be relevant.

And what I’ve found is true in this sacred space is also true out there in the “real world.”

When we accept the invitation to get up and go, to try something new, to make a stranger, a neighbor, a friend. Transformation is inevitable. In ourselves, in the world, in the elements that brings us together and sustain us.

Indeed, transformation is fundamentally what food does and how we relate to it; we change it and it changes us.

Through claiming and sometimes simply renaming the fruits of the earth as “food”, we make ourselves vulnerable to creation’s transforming power: chemically, relationally, spiritually.

To close I’d like to read a poem by the 17th century Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, whose work was influential in my own journey away from pickiness. Officially, the poem’s called “Love III,” but I like to think of it as the reluctant dinner guest.

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.