In a museum, everyone loves the white, spareness and purity. Perfect angles, controlled temperatures. A frame is like a small travelling museum - a tiny, somewhat controlled environment for the preservation and display of a work of art. The idea of something 'lasting forever' or accruing value is all quite silly when you consider the decay happening in and on every surface on the planet - the constant swappage of molecules.
I do however, appreciate the great preoccupation with perfection, presentation and essentially control.
Many years ago, I saw how art does this for us. I went to see a Ballanchine Ballet called Jewels, during a painful and disorienting break up of a relationship and a home.
Every act of the ballet was in reverance to the emerald, the ruby, the sapphire and the diamond. Every high pointed toe, kick and arc of a hand was absolute precision. The backdrop was a solid, shimmering, gorgeous color, reflected in the costumes, the sparkle, and the choreography, one gem/color for each act.
There we were within a dissolving partnership, looking up at the stage. I was sitting next to my roommate, love and friend, and the sad, tired mess of our valiant attempts to do better, talk it through, and make it work. Crying silently, mucus running out of my nose and a hand damp from wiping away this issuance. Up on stage was an impossible perfection, a million miles from where I sat, incomprehensible, orchestrated, perfect. It was heaven. I was earth. A primoridal ooze.
Sometimes, this is what art is for.
You're in it. You may be cowering under the blanket, rooted to the nest of your bed, or couch. Your hair might need washing. Perhaps you're badly in need of a shower. People, people that love you and believe in you might feel like a fiction, a distant memory or a fluke. Lying through their teeth at the very least. Or maybe everything's pissing you off. The alarm clock, uncooperative coat button or bank clerk, the tepid tea.
So this is the little fire I'm building: A few sticks, maybe a little mossy, some crumpled pages of my own journal, and a lighter that's been in my glove compartment for four years at least. My fingers are brittle and cold. I'm blowing on this kindled thing, I believe in it. It's going to catch. When the wind finally dies down for a moment, it does! And then, in some minutes, is the plume of smoke that rises. It rises from this spot, on the side of an unfriendly road where the views aren't inspired. This is the spot where I stopped, would not go another mile. It will have to do.
The plume is going up, visible from over the ridge in a thin, messy, scraggly line rising straight up. This plume is just for you.
Would you like to know why I'm sending you such a plume? Because it's all working and I want you to know that. You are in the throes of transformation my friend and yes indeed, it is uncomfortable. It's not pretty either. And how do I know this with such certainty? Because so am I.
The experience of fear, doubt, insecurity, tossed in with some shame, and an ugliness we fear might be chronic, these are our old modes dislodging.
Sometimes what's foreign and new feels wrong and unsafe. Also, like it's our fault. In a way, it is our fault. We stopped, or if stopped, we chose to get up and take a first step toward that thing we wanted, toward the inkling of who it is we are crossing our fingers we can turn out to be. To really be!
People driving by, they're looking as they go past. Suddenly - it's come to this - what they think of me and my fire by the side of the road in the middle of an empty lot is truly and completely none of my business! It solves nothing at all. I have a fire to tend to. The fire is now brightly burning. My signal to you is now stronger. Look out your window, you'll see it. There's no mistaking it.
You are in it, you are exactly at the center of your life. You are alive and what you are stepping toward is stepping toward you. This is the tiding born by the rising smoke.
The fire that's now impressively burning? It's now strong enough that something else is also beginning. There is a stirring, very deep. A memory waking up, and recognition.
Your fire and my fire, they are the same. They are fanned and brightening with every breath in. My fire is strong in the company of yours. These fires, this fire, is the part of us that says Yes. The part that shows up, finds it funny - a little wierd - and shows up anyway. It's the same Yes everywhere. Courageous fire tenders tending.
You are squarely in the center of your life. You are welcome on this planet. Together, we illuminate the world.
This is what Thai Forest monks meditate on at some point, in part. How gross hair skin and nails are: always growing, always getting funky, needing care.
Today, having cared for my niece and nephew overnight, I was particularly aware of the hag-like aspect of myself, dry skin, nails needing cleaning, cutting, dry scalp and unruly hair, haglike, as I said.
Funny too, how much fuss is made about them all, red nails, long and sexy, clacking at a grocery store cash register, incongruously, hair straightened, dyed, layered, razor-cut, and a million insane, crazy ways to remove it, to walk around pretending we're not daily mowing ourselves, like suburban lawns, in fear of neighborly disdain or being unattractive.
I think they nailed it, those monks, by focusing on that fertile topic for reflection on how we really aren't in charge here, stuff on our own selves just keeps growing and getting weird by it's very nature, regardless of our wishes. Smelling, needing care, however many specialists you have on the job or advanced degrees or grooming tools and apparati.
The point of such a practice, as I understand it, isn't to just gross one out, but to wake up from the spell of being enamoured with our physical forms, but seeing their contstant change, as nature playing itself out right here, not an inch from your face but on your face, your face!
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.