Exhibits

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We walked in and out of 7 art installations today.  An attendant timed our experience, opening the door for new group rotations every 20 or 60 seconds depending on the installation. Each time we walked in, we were visually stirred with lights or dots or pumpkins in a new way, awakening our senses like a visual carnival. Every time I set my purse in the cubby and walked into a 3-man exhibit, I was ready to be surprised.  

Months ago I got tickets to see what a student recently returning from New York said was a magnificent show coming to Atlanta’s High Museum. I got tickets based on her description and the website’s hype as to how Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit will sell out immediately. I panicked when my online turn came up as the bell rang at school, and I accidentally got tickets for a weekday. So today came, and we all played hooky and went on a “field trip.” The best part of the trip was–without fanciful responsibility to feel this way–seeing how much the kids enjoyed it, both of them wanting to take another round at some of the infiniti mirrors experiences.

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On the way to an exhibit encouraging us to experience love as Kusama designed it, there was a line of artwork, starting with a piece that was so simple I didn’t photograph it. In fact, I didn’t take a lot of pictures especially in the installs because I wanted to actually feel it for myself and not through the lense. I’m glad Kal snapped a crooked picture of the sketch for me when I confessed I have no idea why I like it so much, this small doodle of dots in the presence of so many other more sophisticated pieces.

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Clearly Kusama, whose exhibition occupies an entire floor, is coveted, and my small entry into her world, and my surprise in looking at this piece that surely art students around the world have elevated and examined is naive. But the act of its personal resonance and how I talked about it later tonight connects –in the way of art crumbs and timing–to my entry into Mary Oliver’s poetry.

Oliver was renowned and already recognized for brilliance long before she,with her eyes up to the trees or through the morning, came into my life. Some of my friends sought guidance from Oliver’s poetry years ago, and all of us agree that it is the magnitude of her plain expression that swoons us and then balances our vision.

In fact, every tribute or article of her life that I read last night mentions her poetry’s notoriety, accessibility, and simplicity. Summer Brennan, once Oliver’s student, wrote a unique little look into Oliver in The Paris Review yesterday. Brennan remarks on how long that simplicity could often take; in one example, she notes one of Oliver’s published poems had stayed in draft format for 12 years. Even more beautiful is Oliver’s willingness to bring in “failed poems” to dissect with students to help them improve. 

When Oliver says “the world offers itself to your imagination,” and when she reminds us that “every morning the world is created,” or when she says, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your life depends on it, and, when the times comes to let it go, to let it go,” we instinctually bow our head because, gently, she put the spoon near our mouth. 

Artistic threads just help pull up a grey January. When I watched this film last week and watched interviews like this one about it, I fixated on how the art was born and what it did to the people making it–what are the circumstances of their magic? Thinking about art and wanting to quietly commemorate her life, I re-read this article about Oliver and her late partner last night; Mary’s poetry and Molly’s photography complemented each other over their 40 year relationship (see this glimpse into their lives).  In a different journey, I wonder, what life circumstances brought Yayoi Kusama to say this?: 

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Maybe it’s the English teacher in me that cannot divorce artistic appreciation from wondering how an artists’ work affected his or her real life.

While on our excursion from the routine, Kal was getting call after call from real life because that’s in full swing, and we oscillated in and out of that real-life during the art-life we were immersed in temporarily. For as long as my life allows it, I want to be carried away with art-life phrases like “orange sticks of the sun,” songs born out of magic, or art born out of necessity that help simplify and resound because there is always and always other life that is also in full swing. 

 

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Wonder

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For a million years when I was a young girl, I thought my mom was 36. If anyone asked me her age, I’d kind of glance about for a second and say, “I don’t know, 36? Something like that.”

It’s possible when I dressed as a business woman at my elementary school’s Halloween party, I raided her closet for a button down jacket in an effort to look grown, like the 36-year old she was. It’s possible when I saw her in her long nightgown, slightly pink from the pattern of faded country flowers, I looked at her as the woman with reigns, like the gatekeeper of all the milk and all the honey, and she was 36. It’s possible when I wrote that I hated her (an awful teenage blemish) in my plastic white diary, its shiny key hidden under my pillow, she was 36. It’s possible when I raided the family albums, carefully peeling plastic away from the yellowed adhesive, to find old photographs of her for a Mother’s Day gift, she was 36.

How strange is it, then, that I recently turned 36. The sliding scale of what I remember about my mom when she “was 36” is inching closer to my reality now. A magical mirror is held up against my perception of this number now.

There are incredible caverns unveiled each time a woman blows out a birthday candle. Somehow, that breath blows away the dust and sand covering the blocks of untapped strength and beauty. It’s strange to recognize that it took 35 for the threadbare puppet strings to release me mercifully into a new space.  Walking through last year reminds me of the slim gorge leading to Petra, a marvel I visited over 10 years ago when I went to Jordan.

In The Condé Nast Traveler’s Book of Unforgettable Journeys, Edmund White describes Petra, one of the world’s wonders which was once ruled by Nabataeans to Romans to Byzantines, and then somewhat forgotten by the outside world for about 600 years, as a place where at ” every turn you’re hard-pressed to distinguish between natural and human creations.” 

At the time, I didn’t know of White’s advice in his travel essay: “Be prepared for lots of walking.” What I remember, though, is that walking and sweating, walking and wondering, mostly with absent-minded appreciation, and finally getting through the Siq, or the main entrance. At the end of the gnarled hallway, I gasped with surprise at the sheer architecture that unfolded under the sunlight. I was so taken by it that it took a few seconds before I realized I was crying.

Like my friend says, I caught the surprise. I hadn’t researched where we were and what to expect from Petra, but I trusted it would be worth it. I feel maybe I meandered this way when I first became a mom, something so many of us do. Like then I have blind trust in future attractions–both as a parent and as a woman.

I’m convinced that the women I’m lucky to have in my life are consistently folding out of rocks and sand and emerging a little stronger, a little wiser, a little more interesting to even themselves. And with this beautiful nod to the women ahead of me and before me, I want to marvel at their magic. When I see a woman standing at the rock of her 40s, I imagine her strength even if its only coming from the soft place of acceptance of herself.

Sometimes I wonder if these are the middle years, the formative years that we’ll need as the next big stuff in our lives change–not only as our kids grow into and out of things but also as we attend more funerals or get more midnight phone calls or get surprised by others’ life changes. I wonder if women have been created from the strongest bones as I am convinced we are, in many ways, the superior gender.

Maybe looking older is worth the swap for intelligence, camaraderie, and subtle self acceptance that comes with it. Maybe what White says about Petra is similar to our own journey: “As we pushed farther into the valley, the strangeness of Petra overwhelmed us. Everything here is improbable–the remoteness, the mineral force, and especially the bizarre juxtapositions of color, which sometimes looked like watered silk, sometimes like batik, sometimes like old rag rugs.”  What was improbable was the most surprising.

I laugh at my naive assumption that mothers of 14- year olds were always around 36-years old. No matter my appreciation of my mother, I likely considered her a flat character of our lives during that time. It makes me wonder about my kids’ impression of me and what they will feel when, one day years from now, they may have the magic mirror held up to their beautiful, older faces.