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Photograph by Liza Evans

When you work at night, sleeping schedules shift, lines between dream and wakefulness blur into one hazy continuum. After, you never quite know what happened, whether it really did or not.

Some time ago I was working with Russian EVA specialists who were visiting at the Mission Control Center to support a space walk. We’d sit for many hours in that gray, windowless building, straining painfully to understand conversations coming through the static of outer space. Mostly this happened at night, though in that building, you could never tell.

It was on one such night that I decided to stretch my limbs and go for a stroll. I made my way out of the logically elusive structure and into the damp, warm night air of a Houston summer. The earth’s guttural breath caressed me out of the harsh, rough sensations of the building, and lured me towards the green space in the middle of the space center complex.

There, a thick mist was lazing out of the lake, expanding in all directions, reaching out to me. I walked slowly towards the green, half-asleep, relishing the living sounds and sensations of the outdoors. Suddenly, a deer appeared out of the mist, head first. I could see his elaborate antlers and the hooves, submerged in grass. He glanced at me briefly, then turned his attention back to the reflective glass windows of the building he was standing next to.

I was awed by his pensive, slow gaze as he contemplated what I thought was his own reflection in the glass. For a while, we stood still. I – breathing in the moist magic of night, he – thinking his own existential thoughts while peering into the window. Eventually I yawned and he slowly backed into the mist, disappearing from view.

Intrigued, I walked towards the building and noticed, to my great surprise, a stuffed deer head, standing on the inside windowsill, clearly visible through the glass. I marveled at the intelligence of my deer, who had been looking not at his own reflection, but at the head of his fellow ungulate, immortalized and graceful, contemplating life and death, and the fate that awaits us all. “Imagine that…” I mumbled to myself, and turned back towards the mission control center and the stifling cold.

A while later we were walking with a couple of friends in that same part of the center. It was a bright, cheerful day, and I recalled to them my strange encounter with the deer. I timed the story just so, hoping to get to the punch line at the exact moment we would pass the window with the stuffed head. It would have been perfect, except the deer head was no longer there.

Several times I walked the entire length of the glass wall, looking for it, but it was not to be found. In fact, I could not even find the windowsill where it might have been placed…

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“Le Pecheur” by Paul Desire Trouillebert

We had been talking about buying pictures for a long time. The same way that people talk about buying yachts, retiring in Tuscany, or becoming an astronaut. At some point Gri shared a solid argument in favor of chosing fine art as an investment option. He said that you can invest in real estate, bonds, stock, or even jewelry. And the object will just sit there, appreciating, meanwhile giving you no joy. However, if you invest in paintings, they will hang on your walls and make you happy. When the time comes, you will sell them and buy new ones, and be happy again.

Ofcourse he did not use those exact terms. He said “you will derive aesthetic pleasure.”

For him it was and will always be about the artistic idea. When, taken to its logical conclusion, the idea pinned him against the metaphorical wall, he confirmed without batting an eye: yes, he would rather buy a beautiful painting by an unknown artist at a garage sale then win an ugly Picasso on Christie’s.

For me, the allure has been multifasceted. Yes, it would be nice if the painting touched you personally, resonating with an inner vibration of your soul. But a piece of art is an object, with its own history, entourage, name. Some think that every house should have a pizza-cutter; others believe a dog is essencial. I think a home should have objects which embed it into the ebb and flow of history. Imagine – a painting created 250 years ago in a small town in Holland: made by commission and sold to an aristocrat, or kept within the family. Think of the journey it’s taken through the rise of industrialization, through wars and cease fires, through regime consuming regime. Hidden in attics, forgotten under beds, the painting lived its secret life, waiting to be rediscovered. The varnish cracked and sometime in the harsh winter of 1929 it was almost burned for firewood. Then, languishing in a county museum, it was dropped by an intern and a bit of the gilded frame chipped off.

I would want to be a part of that journey. As it sleeps some more in an auction backlot in the 2070’s, I want it to remember the many years (a brief time, by its standards) that it hung on my wall, proudly illuminated and peered over. I want it to remember the children’s crazy shouts and squeals, the salmon smells wafting from the kitchen, the oohs and aahs of infrequent guests.

The painting knows who painted it, but often, we do not. At best, it is just a name, forgotten but for those five centimeters of immortality on the canvas. But we would pose conjectures, and through them, that artist would live. Or, if it is a know painter, we would become a part of that story – no longer isolated from the great movements of civilization. We could have been a speck of driftwood, thousands of miles away from any life, isolated in life and in death. But now we would be in the thick of life, swimming along with whales and other proverbial giants, catching the historical current, surrounded by living organisms.

Such were my thoughts, and in my head they would have remained. Except this happened: I chanced upon a website that serves as a marketplace for large fine art auction houses all over the world. Suddenly I was looking at hundreds of paintings a day, many hours spent pouring over descriptions, prices, researching names, dates, shipping rates. Walking outside, my vision began to play tricks on me – the green of the trees smudged in its pastel variations. The cars on the roadways mutated to horse-drawn buggies, and I swear I saw a Danish Red cow with a couple of peasants in that field behind our house. The monochromy of the lake I pass every day variagated into a thousand airy brush strokes of blues, greens and canary yellows, the sky too danced and strutted in all of its impressionistic glory. Yesterday I had a dream that a squarish, jagged-edged spy was following me as I made my escape in a Mondrianesque labyrinthe.

Fortunately, these altered states of consciousness did not impede me from making a few very good bids. And I must confess, as we speak, several paintings from the far corners of the world are making their way towards me. And I am waiting.

I have been waiting…

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From the chronology of my life, an eight-year old memory…

When I studied as an undergraduate at UCSD, there was a great financial temptation that I succumbed to almost immediately upon discovery. In the psychology, sociology and linguistics buildings where I spent most of my time, there were always flyers hanging, inviting healthy students to participate in studies for a compensation ranging from $20 – $200. I started collecting phone number stubs and contacting graduate and PhD students, offering my pregnant, whimsical self for the betterment of humanity.

One experiment took place on the fifth floor of the Linguistics Building, where a painfully timid Chinese graduate student was researching the frontal cortex and peripheral vision. The test subject was supposed to sit on a swivel stool, place their chin on a plastic platform and look inside a device of sorts, not unlike those used to test eyesight and pupil dilation. You had to look straight, and every once in a while tiny green dots would signal in your right or left peripheral vision, for only a millisecond or two. If you noticed them, you were supposed to raise the respective hand. And so it went for about half an hour. There was a scanner embedded deep inside the device, which recorded your eye movement and focus. This is why you were supposed to sit especially still.

I committed myself to five sessions, and started coming. Apparently I had a knack for sitting painfully still and perceiving green dots with my peripherals. The graduate student interviewed me after each session, and unbeknownst to myself, I gradually befriended him. Shy, foreign, scientific types were my forte – I spent all of high school hanging out with them, and so for me talking with him came naturally. When everything was over and I received my hard-earned $100, the student invited me to lunch to celebrate the completion of the study. Since I had mentioned to him several times over the course of the sessions that I was married, I figured it was safe. Stubborn and naive, I convinced myself that all bases were covered by an additional admonishment that we were going as friends only.

During the dinner the student was on perfect gentlemanly behavior, and gave me a pot-bellied ceramic teddy bear for storing hot sake. The following morning I received an email in which, in his broken English, he confessed his love. It broke my heart: how perfect this would have been for someone who wasn’t me! But I was not destined to make his happiness, to be his other half, etc.

I responded with a polite reminder about my marriage, and that marked the end of our mostly professional relationship. I kept the bear though, as a talisman and a reminder for myself.

But of what, I’ve forgotten.

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Often I marvel at the profound intuition that Jesus exhibited when talking and teaching. Why should it be so surprising that he knew the needs and quirks of the human soul, after all, He created us. But what continues to strike me is that by and large, we seem to have gotten the purpose behind the message wrong. In his teachings, Jesus instructs us to treat other people in a certain way, and we naturally think that this is done for the good of those other people. However, we are mistaken. It is, first and foremost, done for the good of us.

One of the most prominent teachings Jesus offers is that of forgiveness. We are to forgive when others do wrong against us, whether they ask for forgiveness or not; regardless of what is in their hearts, we are to let go. And for good reason: the internal anger that is the opposite of forgiveness is terribly destructive. On a physical level, it keeps us grinding our teeth to a pulp, our faces are taught, our jaw muscles hurt. We do not take deep breaths and our brains are short of oxygen. No wonder we cannot think clearly. Countless papers testify to the negative physiological effects of anger. In terms of our intangible inner life, anger keeps us emotionally constipated. We cannot move forward. Dwelling and mulling become our pastime, productivity and creativity dwindle. Also, without forgiveness we continue feeling like the victim, helpless and bitter, and live our lives accordingly. So it turns out that letting go is first and foremost beneficial for the one doing the forgiving.

A closely related topic is that of humility. With word and action, Jesus taught his followers to think of others better than of themselves, to be humble, to let go of pride. Granted, everyone benefits when the haughty become the meek, the world would be a better place with less arrogant people. But here too, I find that the person that benefits most from this abandon of pride is the one that lets it go. While you are busy preserving your self image, that frail ego inside that shudders with every threat, you could be out joyfully trying new things, falling on your face and getting up again, interacting with people you wouldn’t normally come in contact with…We fear that if we let go of our pride, our whole being will whisp out of existence. At least I fear this. But what I discover is that with every bit of that perceived “self” that you give up, you are actually gaining psychological leg room. You can think freer, plus you have more energy to do so, since you are not wasting it on preserving the dignity of the self. And, incidentally, letting go of pride leads to less cases of that pride being hurt or offended, which helps with not getting angry and having to forgive those who “sin against you”.

Through all of New Testament scripture we are reminded to pray for those close to us. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes it a step further and instructs his followers to pray for those who persecute them. Prayer, in my mind, has always been an exercise that you do for the benefit of other people. Please heal my child from his pneumonia. Please strengthen my grandparents in their time of need. Please be with that individual who yelled hurtful things at me…Surely, this kind of petitioning with prayer is done for the sake of the recipient of the asked-for blessing.  Surely, but actually, not really.  When I pray, work is being done within me. As I pray “for my enemy”, I am inevitably forced to think of them not in terms of what they’ve done to me, but in terms of what they might need prayer for. This in turn forces me to see them as a person, not a source of my pain. Prayer gives way to empathy, which in turn brings about healing. Through prayer, you realize that we’re all in this together, not very different from each other, all needing forgiveness sometimes; all needing love.

Love. Yes, this is the glue that holds it all. The two most important commandments are to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you think about it, why would the Lord, who is perfect love and who, within the Trinity, already gives and receives his love, need ours? From the first glance this seems to be the case: love God because he needs it, love others because they need it too.  But actually I think there is another, perhaps most important component: love because you need to love. You were designed to love, and you are realized as a human being through sharing this love.  Not surprisingly, close relationships between people are a key characteristic both of the so-called “Blue Zones”, pockets of communities with the most centenarians, and of the countries with the most happy people overall. When we live surrounded by love and expressing love, we live longer, happier lives.

This is why I think Jesus was a talented therapist: by following his instructions and focusing on doing good to others, we are in fact healing and transforming ourselves.

Paris(Recently I returned from an adventure in Europe. The next few posts will be dedicated to that trip.)

We ride the escalator into Paris . The Place de Republique looked so navigable on a map drawing down in the metro. Now it’s honking, whizzing, brimming to the rim with people and vespas and cars and other two-axle vehicles. Completely disoriented but optimistic, we roll our luggage past a stage being erected under Marianne’s elbow while she, the perfect symbol of the French Republic, looks on with gusto. A shirtless, muscular man climbs a pole protruding up, binds it to horizontal rods, while two others fasten the ends to the rest of the framework. Backstage skeleton bits coming together as we treck past, bobbing up and down cheerfully in this sea of clanking, barking instructions, motors, sirens. We stay in Paris for only a week, yet this is long enough to feel the eighth notes trilling the heartbeat of city life.

On Tuesdays and Fridays the empty alley on Blvd. Voltaire fills with farmers, butchers, and creamers selling produce. Sun-kissed, cracked hands weigh and package greens, handing neat sacks into milky white fingers. The rhythm of the city pulses and we are in it too – stray syncopated notes, unexpected but miraculously integrated.

In the mornings people are focused, people are few. They must be working, or something. By four or five the metro stops are full again, the brasseries start maxing out their capacity. By 8 or 9pm all of the coffee shops, restaurants, eateries and drinkeries are bursting at the seams with what appear to be the Parisians themselves. Nobody’s rushing to home and hearth. Why bother, when you can sit packed like sardines at an outside table squeezed next to another table and another table, drinking wine and smoke? Awash in human voices and odors, people are drawn to the brasseries even as the streets become more empty at night.

By eleven the sun sets. Youth en masse flood the banks of the Seine, sitting side-by-side with strangers, four, five rows deep. Why the exodus towards the water? Why the choice to spend the evening surrounded by people when you’ve already been surrounded by people the whole day at work? Could all Parisians be extroverts?

We walk and the city breathes, exhaling hot air through the grates under our feet. Trap doors in the walls blow underground wind and train noises over us. When we ourselves descend below, into the innards of Paris, other smells creep in: ureah plus a thousand digestive stenches from people and machines. Arterial tunnels coil and uncoil, expanding in all directions from the central nodes of human traffic. Cold air licks us from high-end boutiques, cabbage and brie smells tickle us from their stands.

Especially on Saturday, life continues deep into the night. This time we ride up to Place de Republique to the thumping low frequencies and high guitar squeals of a concert. The stage that we first saw being assembled now stands complete, a band plays, the whole square is teeming with people. They bounce, they sing along, they skate-board along the sharp edges of the architecture. They belt out their conversations. We escape the deafening wall of sound and duck into Rue Malte. Though the beat continues, it’s tolerable now – it’s as if we’ve bypassed the throbbing heart and are now somewhere in the sinews of this living, gurgling, breathing creature. We still hear it, know it, but are not damaged by it.

The festivities go on for a long time, but by two or three people are finally settling down. You can tell by the infrequency of the sirens, their doppler-effected wails – a final lullaby. Sunday morning it is quiet: nobody on the streets, the shops are closed, only beer cans rattle down steps and wrappers slither across open spaces. Even during the day life stirs lethargically, never gaining full momentum. So the sun sets on another week in Paris – an insignificant tally mark in the age of this city. Years will go by and it will stand unperturbed. People will weave in and out of its colorful tapestry without it ever noticing. So we too depart, missing it more than it will ever miss us.

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