Sunday, October 30, 2011

Degas and the Virtue of Never Being Finished

"He is like a writer striving to attain the utmost precision of form, drafting and redrafting, canceling, advancing by endless recapitulation, never admitting that his work has reached its final stage: from sheet to sheet, copy to copy, he continually revises his drawing, deepening, tightening, closing it up."

- Paul Valéry (1871-1945), writing about Degas -

So I went to spend some quality time worshiping in the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection today (it feels like a chapel to me, so I consider it to be one). When I got there, the room was crowded, so I ambled upstairs to check out the Phillips' exhibit on Degas. I wasn't particularly excited about it. I like Van Gogh, how you can see his wrestling with insanity in the frenzied lines of his paintings. I like Rembrandt, how he uses light to channel your focus and create a sort of dream-like state, how he often tells a full story with really very few subjects on the canvas. I like Kandinsky and his use of mathematical/musical/fractal themes and bright colors. I like Rothko's outright obsession with intense, intense colors. As far as I was concerned, Degas was a Guy Who Painted Chicks In Fluffy Dresses.

This, of course, is why we have art galleries... so that we're pushed to think more deeply about the image in front of us, if for no other reason than we can see the artist's brush strokes and are forced to confront that this image is here because a person made it become. When an image becomes clichéd to us, it feels as though it has always been. We forget there was a process, and we forget that there was a moment at the beginning where the artist wasn't at all sure they knew what they were doing. We forget that they were human... that maybe they never really knew what they were doing.

The most striking thing to me about the Degas exhibit is that it consists largely of studies and sketches that he did of dancers and nudes, with the same images again, and again, and again. Dancers resting, dancers standing, dancers stretching, women bathing... the walls are covered with half finished renderings of the same few models in the same few poses, over and over and over. I'm not used to this, from the Phillips or from any other exhibit that I've seen. I'm used to seeing one or two studies hanging near finished works so that you get some idea of the artist's process... plus it feels pleasantly sneaky to think that you're seeing something they didn't intend to be seen.

To make the exhibit largely about the studies themselves, to center it around partially finished work, seemed very profound to me. Maybe this is only due to the fact that what the Phillips has of Degas' work is largely sketches, but I felt like it was something deeper, like it was about Degas himself, or about art more generally, or maybe about humanity. Or maybe I was thinking about it too much... but here's what I was thinking...

I can't find a really good internet rendering of the image at the top of this post, but that image is the first one that took my breath away. The effect is better served by the image at right. As with the rest of the sketches, there's a lot of vagueness... scribbled lines, colors, shading not really worked out... but then BLAM, there are shoulders, a face, an arm, real enough to look as though they were photographed. The stark, surprising beauty of that had far more of an effect on me than any of the other finished paintings. I felt like I was witnessing a living being emerge from the paper... the creative process of a man who died almost 100 years ago in a continual state of re-birth on the page.

After I got over my initial reaction, the first thing I thought was "here's the dignity in not finishing", and the second thing I thought was "...and the dignity in starting even when you're not sure you're ready". What these sketches suggest to me is that Degas was so thoroughly committed to his process that finishing things was almost a sidebar. The point was to keep trying, to keep showing up at the page, to keep attempting to render these images that he found so compelling, to keep trying to make a static image on a page move like a dancer.

Beyond that, I think I was touched at how these sketches felt to me like what it is to be alive. I've been meditating a lot on how much of life is improvisation, but that this creates a level of tension when you're on a spiritual path and you believe in God and believe in truth. On the one hand, there is a responsibility to be present to what is in front of you and to what the Holy Spirit is revealing through your life, but on the other hand there's truth and the dictates of conscience/ received ideas of morality/scripture, etc. I don't know that I can make this make sense, but seeing that image of a dancer's firm, fleshy shoulders emerging from squiggled lines and vague colors on a yellowed piece of paper seem to speak to that for me. There are always things that must remain true, firm, and concrete or I/we risk just kind of falling apart, but there is also always a lot of becoming... firm shoulders and squiggly outlines can co-exist, and still be breathtakingly beautiful.

Even in his finished works, Degas often seems to maintain this sense of vague edges to great effect. Standing and observing "Melancholy" (image at left), I was struck again at how much he chose not to define in the background, or even, really in the foreground when compared to the woman's face. Again, the greatest reality in this image is that of flesh, and his attentiveness to that makes it nearly impossible to look away from the woman's face. I thought to myself that "Melancholy" wasn't a strong enough word... this woman has been obliterated by something and is hanging on by a thread. So much communicated in this little space because he choose to fill in only what was important.

The quote at the beginning of this post is on the wall at the Phillips beside the sketch of the dancer tying her shoe. I scribbled it down in my little red moleskine, which I carry with me all the time and which contains a lot of scraps of things that I've tried to capture when they've dropped into my brain. It's also full of notes to myself... titles of albums, books, and paintings that I was trying to record because I knew I'd forget... as well as the blood pressure and pulse readings I get every time I give blood. This is how my life is... bits of some decent-ish writing, some singing here and there, occasional songwriting with friends... also books, papers, color, chaos, and quite a bit of blah.

The quote suggests a considerable amount of discipline on Degas' part, but in the context of a roomful of beautiful sketches nowhere near completion, it takes on a different tone, suggesting instead a man comfortable with the chaos of creativity, willing and able to be a beginner every day... someone who, perhaps, also had small notebooks filled with ideas and maybe also didn't clean his apartment as often as he should. I'm grateful to get a window into the kind of beauty that can emerge from showing up to participate in that creative chaos, day after day after day. It gives me hope.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sounds like Jupiter, doesn't it?

So I went down to Occupy DC tonight, for various reasons, but largely because I felt that, after what happened in Oakland, CA earlier this week, this was the place I wanted to be tonight. I got there in time to stand at the edges of the evening General Assembly for about an hour and a half, listening.

This is my fourth time down there, and every time I've been I've come away with mixed feelings and a sense of something I struggle hard to articulate. I want to try to articulate it here.

First off, I'm fascinated and a little in awe of their decision making process. I know a very, very little bit about group decision making in a flat leadership structure. I learn more and more through Common Table all of the time, and I learned some things in my masters degree about facilitation and group decision-making, but I've never witnessed something like this: a culture of its own emerging in a public space... a little mini-society, complete with rules for decision-making and administration of resources. My understanding is that the process they use, as well as some of their lingo and use of common gestures and symbols, has been adapted from Occupy Wall Street, but that doesn't make it much less amazing to me. I watched two young women facilitate a large gathering, complete with occasional ranting from folks who appeared mentally ill, with competence, purpose and clarity. Decisions were made. Plans were formed. Tasks were delegated. In other words, shit got *done*.

I spend a really, really disproportionate amount of time in meetings, and the fact that a group of people could self-organize with this level of efficiency and conduct a meeting that is actually productive in the middle of a park on a cold Friday night kind of blew my mind. Whatever ultimately comes of these protests, there are graduate degrees to be had studying the conditions that have led to these mini-communities forming and sustaining themselves all over the country.

However much admiration I have for their process, though, I always feel a little ill at ease being there. I thought this was because I work for the Government, because I can only spend limited time down there, because I'm not a "radical", whatever that is exactly.

But tonight I looked around and saw other people like me... people in work clothes, with sensible overcoats, carrying laptops. Some of these people spoke, and mentioned their day jobs and their desire not to be arrested because it would jeopardize their employment. As I looked around the crowd, I realized that the people who'd clearly come from work appeared to be about a quarter of the crowd. I wasn't expecting that at ALL. So that wasn't the source of my discomfort, exactly. What was?

My friend Micah Bales has been involved in Occupy DC from the very beginning. He's the reason I came down to the protests the first time, and my admiration for his dedication to this cause is the main reason I keep going. He's struggled very publicly on his blog with being a person of faith (he is a founding member of Capitol Hill Friends, where I worship on Sunday nights) who is there as a result of those convictions. I found his thoughts at this post clarifying tonight, particularly this quote:

"There are many Christians involved in Occupy DC - I discover more all the time. Nevertheless, the overall culture and worldview of the Occupy movement is a lowest-common-denominator, generally left-wing set of assumptions. So far, almost all of the discourse at Occupy DC has been about "restoring democracy," "building power," or the plight of "the 99%." I have not heard anyone - including the folks whom I know are Christians - talking about the Kingdom of God and Jesus' mission to liberate the poor and oppressed."

When I read that, I thought, oh. That's it. It wouldn't honestly occur to me to expect Occupy DC to have a Christian message, but without that message, the desires of the protesters for a better, more ethical and just society feel to me like clothes that just don't fit right. It's not that lack of faith makes what they're asking for inauthentic... but without faith, I can't access it. I can't get beyond the irony of folks on smart phones (including me) protesting the abuses of capitalism. I can't get away from the twinge I feel in my gut walking away from the park and into the train station, where the actual homeless people are slumped over in the corner. Without Christ at the center, so much of what is being asked for seems put on to me, inauthentic.

The final point: for all I would say about community forming spontaneously around the protests, no one ever talks to me when I'm there, and that might bother me more than anything else. I understand that the nature of a protest is such that the participants are going to be self-conscious, but the level of self-consciousness feels really inauthentic to me. Walking out of the park, away from the protesters and where the usual street people are, one man greeted me: "Good evening, Queen." I said "hullo" and smiled and he said "God bless you, have a good night", and I said "you, too" and thought gosh, it's nice to be called "Queen". Waiting at the intersection, a man in a fuzzy blue hat who seemed like he was probably high approached and said "Good evening, ma'am. You're very beautiful. Pencils and lights. Sounds like Jupiter, doesn't it?"

And I smiled and thought, yes, it sounds like Jupiter. And that I suddenly felt much more at home than I did in that park.

For all my confusion about what I feel about Occupy DC, I'm still glad they're there. DC can be so numb, and so numbing. Last Sunday, when I walked into the park and stood around an impromptu concert featuring a stand-up bass, violin, mandolin, guitars and rhythm instruments, I was deeply grateful for that. I am grateful to see evidence that people who choose to step out of the flow of "normal" life can then choose to organize themselves and have a medical tent, food tent, a legal consultation team (!) and even tech support. I love that there are always people painting and at least one person playing a drum. I love that people have named their tents.

I don't know what the end of Occupy DC will be... but I know that when it ends, I'll feel like we've lost something... a site of protest and rebellion in a town that is often too well-off and comfortable for its own good... an outward manifestation of my own inward frustration at the injustices I'm a part of without my consent. So I'll continue to visit, and I will pray for it. That is all I know to do.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I Write

So this is (or was, almost) the National Day on Writing, and being a good writer, I didn't pay any attention to it until just now when I realized it was almost over.

So, this is my attempt to say why I write.

Why I Write

Just like you
I am
a set of variables comprising
what others see as

(Partial inventory:

- facial expressions - cheekbones, freckles, skin
- body language - moves hands like this when talking
- height/weight/hair color/eye color
- the way eyes change when a person smiles
- clothing and words
- voice - laughing, whispering, singing
- preferences
- aversions
- memories
- regrets)

Just like you
I am
a collection of contradictory impulses
decisions not decided, really...
impulses checked, chucked, indulged.
For everything I appear to have chosen
there is something in my
(history, biology, neurochemistry,
background, upbringing, belief system)
that probably pushed me toward it.

Just like you
I picked up
everything I do, say or think
the way.

Just like you
I am
living with book ended days
waking up, hair disheveled,
disturbed by a dream...
and going to bed,
settling into sleep
giving into day's end.

Just like you
I am
aging in my body
and both limited and blessed by it
in a thousand different ways.
I also fear my death
despite my faith
(and maybe, sometimes, because of it).

So this is why I write...
to take the vastness of
who and what we both are
and say
"I'm sorry we have so little time
to make ourselves understood to each other."

I write to pull a moment out of the
running stream of my history,
and show it to you, and say,
"look, here we are,
because I am
just like you."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


So, this past Sunday at Common Table, the liturgical team led a service based around a simple liturgy from Iona. As part of this liturgy, we meditated on scripture and also on our past week, and were encouraged to share a short anecdote from the week, incorporating our response to the scriptures in that. We were particularly encouraged to make our anecdote visual... to try and capture a particular moment visually.

The texts we were meditating on, taken from the Lectionary, were difficult (Exodus 32:1-14 and Matthew 22:1-14). These texts emphasized the wrath of God, and in particular, I found the questions posed by the opening verses of Matthew 22 disturbing.

So I wrote about my cab ride from the night before.


The cab driver's skin is the color of a Hershey's Special Dark bar. His collar is up, against the mild cold of the evening. "You are smart," he says. "You go home early, beat the traffic." I laugh. "You bet, man. I love my sleep." Pause. He looks at me in the rearview mirror. His eyes are the same Hershey Dark, with arched, thick eyebrows, giving a vaguely Sean Connery effect. His face is creased with lines, particularly around the eyes and forehead. Worry lines. This man is a thinker.

I decide to say it. "Plus, I gotta be at church in the morning." Arched eyebrows fly skyward. "Church!!", he says. "What kind church?" Ahh. What kind church. "It's hard to say. Let's just say Protestant. We're a mix of denominations." I hold up my hands, with interlaced fingers. "Somehow we make it work."

He nods. I dive in again. "You're Ethiopian?" Slight crease between the eyebrows. "Yes, I am Ethiopian." "Ethiopian Orthodox, then?" The crease smooths. "Yes... I mean I was. But now I am little bit confused." He switches lanes. He's a competent driver, knows these roads, knows where he's going.

I say, "Well, a new culture, another country... it's easy to be confused."

And the dam bursts.

20 minutes of questions, challenges, one arm waving, one hand on the wheel... eyebrows raising, furrowing, dancing on his forehead. "If God is love, why did He kill His Son??" "If Jesus was God, why was He afraid to die??" "All the churches, they teach different things, who to believe??" "Why so many versions of the Bible??"

We're hurtling down 14th Street: lit shop windows, darkened office buildings, shadowed doorways, pedestrians, crosswalks... a stream of vari-colored images: the secular world, material, embodied, and a thoroughly unhelpful visual landscape for contemplating answers to these questions. Not that I really intend to answer them, though. He's not giving me space for answers... occasional pepperings of "Yes?", "You see??", and "You know???" appear to be there for verbal ornamentation alone.

So I nod. I say, "I see your point," and a couple of times, when he stops for breath, I offer a short response to the couple of things for which I feel I have a response. Some of his questions I just don't have answers for... they're things that bother me, too, but not enough to chuck my faith. Plus, it's late, I'm tired, I just want to get home. I end up having to talk over him in order to give directions... otherwise, it appears he would just speed on on on into the dark night, driving as long as his questions last, hurtling us both forward into the bottomless pit of his doubt.

In front of my apartment, he turns to me, intent on continuing. I mutter something about how he has more fares to collect, hand over my money (with a healthy tip), and pat him on the shoulder. "Keep asking the questions, buddy." Pathetic. But a bright smile flashes across his face, worry lines around his eyes smooth. "Have good night!!", he says brightly.

Is that what he needed? It was a pointless thing to say, but maybe better than anything else I could have said. He wasn't looking for an answer... he just wanted a confessor for his doubts. I walk up the front steps of my building, tired and heavy with my own silence, but unable to think of anything more Christ-like than bearing witness to his struggle and answering gently and briefly where I could.

LORD, have mercy.