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Gourd_Weave

A few days ago I joined the Texas Gourd Society. I’ve been in love with these creatures for a while, so it’s only right to make it official.

Gourds seem an artisan’s universal canvas. They provide great surfaces for oil and acrylic paint, are ideal for pyrography and wood carving of all caliber, and are all-around pleasant entities. The gentle undulations in their form, the soft, smooth finish, the fibrous innards and sweet, earthy aroma make working with them a soothing, rhythmic exercise as much as a meditative practice. They’re also great for embellishing with weaving, and encrusting them with beads, glass, sea shells, and much more. But what really attracts me to them as an art medium is the fact that they are round.

When you paint on a flat surface, the story you tell has a definite beginning and end. In Western art, I would postulate, it reads from left to right. For instance, the traditional reclining nudes typically have their heads on the left half of the canvas and their feet point towards the right side. That way, as you’re scanning the painting, “reading” it by force of habit from left to right, you first see the head, the key element and then the rest of the body. The edges of the canvas serve as the frame of the composition, a focal lens through which the artist shows us a specific, limited reality.

With gourds, the story depicted has no beginning or end. It goes on and on, or it doesn’t go at all. It is as rhythmic as a musical round or chant, it ebbs and flows and you can grow mesmerized, turning it about its axis, following the patterns with your eyes. Besides offering this unique medium on which to create, the gourd adds flavor and dimensionality to your piece with its shapeliness. A narrow, curvy top doubles as a neck inclined in perplexity. A fat, full-bellied bottom makes a lovely foundation to weave on.

Incidentally, the idea of a perpetual decorative field is not limited to the well-shaped pumpkin. The concept of ornament, prolific in many ancient cultures and reaching into modernity, is the most wide-spread attempt to create a sense of an unending, rhythmic motion on a two-dimensional surface. The patterns and designs repeat with no visible end in sight, often finishing where they started, turning in on themselves, fractalling or transmuting across the borders of wooden carvings, friezes, church walls, dress hems. A more contemporary example of squeezing the perpetual into a flat rectangle of space can be seen in M.C.Escher’s work. Hands continue drawing hands ad infinitum, stairs descend with no visible plan to reach the bottom, birds morph into fish that morph into birds that morph…

But still, the gourd is better suited for this type of work. Plus, you can even use its internal space to embellish the pictorial message on the outside surface. The only problem posed by the unusual shape is how to display it: you can’t hang it on a wall, you can’t put it in a frame. You can’t really even set it down because the artist might have painted or decorated it all the way around on the bottom. But I am certain that those creatives who tackle gourds in the first place, will come up with appropriate ways to display their craft.

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In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day, this is the first in a series of four stories about the four generations of women in my family. 

Mosaic

The old mosaic factory is located at 2A, 3rd Lane, Vassilievsky Island in St.Petersburg, Russia. It is a formidable, mustard-colored structure which, even in its run-down and decrepit state, is still imposing. In its heyday, it generated enough glass to line the entire St.Isaac Cathedral, and later provided the mosaic to decorate several key metro stations in St.Petersburg. As it stands now, the graffitied walls facing inside the Academichesky Garden harken to better days, in the early 20th century, when the factory was at its peak operation.

Twenty five years ago, already languishing from disuse, the factory observed with bemusement the children playing in the sand box nearby, and watched as two little girls would pick their way through the piles of sand and debris that now occupied its back yard, in search of shiny, sleek pieces of colorful glass. Those girls, Liza and I, walked in the garden with our mama, and relished the chance to poke around behind the factory. The excitement of that pursuit is as pungent within me now as fresh paint on a bench or a railing. Within the dusty, trodden earth and grit, we would rummage with our sticks or fingers, pricking them sometimes on that distinguishable, rough edge where bit of stone met bit of glass; colored pieces of it – striped, aquamarine blue, cosmic black, even lipstick red or lava orange.

The mosaic left-overs were the treasure of all treasures, the highlight of our day. Yes, there was the thrill of the hunt, but more than that was the thrill of possibility. Locked inside those little squares were ornate sand castles, flying carpets for miniature plastic toys, bargaining chips to obtain other desirables from the obstinate sister, and pretties to add to our own mosaic collection (all secure in our coat pocket).

Looking back, the mosaic factory on 3rd Lane planted a seed in Liza: a fascination with colored glass which blossomed, decades later, into a near-obsession with stained glass windows. Liza learned to make them, treat them, design and mold them. In a way, they molded her too.

One day, after doing our rounds over the familiar mounds, mama and Liza and I headed towards the other end of the garden, flanked by a building belonging to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. There was an outside stairwell heading down into the basement, and above it a low, slanted sheet-metal roof that, when climbed, provided access to the high windows of the first floor. Naturally, I clambered up on that roof and peeked inside. Inside, expanding below the ground level and up into the high, vaulted ceilings was a sculpting studio.

Transfixed by the majesty of large-scale wooden carcasses, drying clay torsos and busts on pedestals, I squished my nose against the glass and stared. Shortly I caught the eye of a young sculptor massaging a great hulk of sculpting potential. He smiled and waved at me. Timidly, I waved back. He winked and beckoned me to come visit. I turned to mama and told her that there’s a man inside who’s inviting us to go in. Since she couldn’t even see into the studio, she was curious to know what was in there, so, with two girls in tow, she walked around the back of the building and we showed ourselves in.

The sculptor had black, thick curly hair and muscular hands that he wiped on his apron before introducing himself. We were all wide eyes and eager ears, and he was a gracious host who told the three of us about what they do there, and how sculpting works. For larger pieces you first have to make a skeleton that you will then stick the clay on. For smaller pieces, you can mount them on a heavy board and shape them with your fingers, but sometimes you have to carve out the interior, if it’s a head, for example, because then the firing will be quicker and smoother. If you’re working with a harder medium like bronze, you have to create a mold first. To do this you make the object out of wax, then encase it in clay which should harden, then you melt the wax out of the clay and pour in the bronze, and finally, once the bronze cools off, you break the mold and you have the finished piece. This he told us, and much more in the half an hour or so that we spent, mesmerized, in the studio.

Eventually it was time to go, and we promised to come back and visit him, though we never did. Shortly after, we moved to a different part of town, and then to America, and I have not often visited that alleyway of my memory. But I do think of it now, and realize that the mosaic factory and the unexpected, chance encounter with the sculptor planted in me the relentless drive to look for the sacred among the profane. And over the years, that search has always yielded results; the profane has been  generous with me.

 

Trees

This man knows things. Let’s call him Alexander. Sometimes we work together, and when we do, I can safely bet that I will not get everything done on my agenda, because instead of doing the things, I will be listening to the man. And he will be telling me stories.

Once Alexander spent over an hour recounting the long and vibrant history of the shrimp trade, with tangential excursions into the seventeen species and twelve genus of this crustacean, the currents in the Sea of Japan, and shipbuilding in the late 1700’s in Portugal. Another time, he dedicated the better part of the work day talking about bee-keeping and hair styles. One of the most memorable talks was a thorough critical analysis of Bruegel’s The Battle Between Carnival and Lent. But today Alexander is telling me about something of a more personal nature: he recounts his memories of climbing trees as a child.

I imagine little Sasha clambering up and down the large and luxurious branches of trees that, in our context, would be the venerable live oaks. He’d spend his days up in the canopy, jumping from limb to limb, planning ambushes with his friends, swinging on branches, scratching skin off protruding knees, ankles and elbows. He tells me that through this exercise, he first learned to appreciate three-dimensionality. He came to be able to visualize the spaces between the branches, the entire layout of the tree, in his mind’s eye. Later, when he was a teenager and climbing trees was no longer appropriate, he dreamt about it. And at night, in his dreams, he was not holding on to the branches anymore, but flying among them, up and over and between them.

“Through my dreams, I came to know the meaning of negative space: the spaces between things, and how to navigate them.” he tells me. Dreams are personal territory, and I listen quietly, appreciative of a rare glimpse into this person’s inner life.

I imagine these negative spaces – they look like 3D images of polypeptides, captured by invisible boundaries.

“There is another instance of negative space,” I start to tell him, “that I encountered recently.” Several days prior, I accidentally came across Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes: what ethereal compositions, especially when performed thoughtfully. One rendition was played at such a slow tempo, that the pauses between the sounds took on a life of their own. The shape and feel of each silence was different, unique, deliberate. By the end of the gnossienne, it was clear that the pianist was sharing things too personal for words. And perhaps Erik Satie himself wanted us to read between the lines.

Spurred on by my own contemplation, I want to tell Alexander more about my understanding of negative space. I glance up him, and though he is nodding, as if listening, his eyes have that glazed look of recollection. He is back there, flying through the trees. So I fall silent, thinking my own thoughts, comfortable with the shape of the quiet between us.

anyas

Recently I came across an interesting article on the reemergence of psychedelic treatment for terminally ill patients. The treatment involves administration of controlled doses of psilocybin, the active chemical in psychedelic mushrooms and other hallucinogens of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, to help those facing their end of life to live their last months with a renewed sense of peace and well-being.

The drug provides patients with several hours of an “experience”, as Jimi Hendrix called it, or of a good trip, as everyone else referred to it back in the day. Through this hallucinatory journey, the patient is able to give up the sense of self, and to connect to the rest of the world, to other people, to God. Most of the patients who undergo the treatment come to consider the experience as one of the top most powerful and significant in their lives: it gives them new perspective, a new sense of connection, and an ability to let go.

As this Lenten season comes into full swing, I cannot help but envy the people who get to try this new treatment, just a little. We talk about giving things up for Lent, but how sublime would it be to give up the self?.. The elderly in our church have been able to do so: they look at you and listen, they are not afraid for their fragile egos, they do not perceive everything through the prism of their own selfish ends, but, more and more, through God’s eyes. Oh, to be freed of the ego that gives birth to pride, insecurities, ambition, jealously. To lose inhibitions that arise from a heightened awareness of self, and to meld into the rest of humanity…

The article quotes Katherine MacLean, a former Johns Hopkins psychologist, who says that during a “trip”, “you’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and the process can feel like dying…” Perhaps that’s why the elderly are better at letting their egos go: they are closer to having to let go of everything, and many things have already been taken from them… But also, they have had more time to ponder Paul’s letter to the Romans, which urges us to be dead to ourselves, and alive in Christ.

The crux of the neurology of the life-altering trip lies in the brain’s default-mode network. This is a region of the brain which plays the role of the overseer of the entire system, responsible for monitoring the informational input from various centers, funneling and limiting and controling. It is the physical place where the ego lives. The default-mode network, as the source of self-awareness and the corporate executive which controls all lower impulses, is thought to be evolution’s greatest achievement in molding the human brain. When psilocybin is administered, this is the portion of the brain that it targets, and, once found, successfully puts to sleep.

Now, when the boss is on hiatus, great things can happen. Other portions of the brain are freer. The visual cortex connects with the memory and voila! Hallucinations. Those who are, in daily life, crippled by an excessively authoritarian default-mode network, become released from their obsessions, compulsions, addictions. A mind intensely turned in on itself, as one plagued by depression, is able to losen its grip and turn outwards, once again connecting to others and noticing the world around it. A mind unable to think outside the lines taps into its silenced stores of creativity and imagination.

Curiously, the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution, a consciousness, is perceived by the church as the result of original sin. Once Eve and Adam ate the apple, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Genesis 3:7a). Until that moment, they were not aware of themselves. They were also probably closer to God and less prone to depression and self-flagellation.

And so I return back to Lent. And for Lent, I would like to give up my default-mode network. Just for a little while, just until Easter. It is highly effective and well trained. Who wants it?

Anyone?

serendip

Standing in line at the French bistro, I glance nonchalantly over the employees ringing up the register, warming up croissants, making lattes. Among them, a new face – an Asian man walks to the foreground from within the kitchen, pulls at a hot tray of freshly baked breads, winces and drops it back. Clearly he is not familiar with the minutae of the work, but he acts as if he belongs there. He is probably the owner.  Nothing is predictable anymore.

I make my way towards a corner table with my chocolate croissant, pull out Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and the latest letter from grandma Larisa, and prepare to disappear into my private literary world. A man plops at a nearby table, his back to me, setting out on the table “Moscow! All You Wanted to Know” and Gramophone, the world’s authority on classical music. Devouring my croissant and gulping down the tea, I contemplate the self-sentencing isolation in which most of us live. It is time to put an end to it, I say (to myself, in my head), stop it today. So I take a last swig of Earl Grey, stand up and come towards the man with Moscow.

“Hi. I couldn’t help notice your Moscow tour book. I’m actually from Russia – are you planning to visit soon?” The man responds politely, and a pleasant, genuine conversation begins. We talk for a while, about St.Petersburg and Russian politics, about music and the love thereof, about literature, even, at which point I mention that I should probably return to my reading. As I stand up, he’s beaming and I say, “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. I’ve actually made it a point to meet interesting-looking strangers, and you’ve been the first today. I’m so glad I came up to you…” Actually, I didn’t. But wouldn’t it have been neat if I did?

Instead, I am still sitting, finishing up my tea, when the Asian man from behind the counter walks up to Moscow man, sits down facing him, and places between them a topless container with a yellowish hazy liquid.

“Do you see them? The little guys in the corner,” Asian man points, “See all the way at the bottom? They’re not so bad now, but they grow up to be pretty ugly creatures…” Moscow man responds with statistics on their growth from the internet, Asian man mentions that you can never trust those forums anyway – people’ll say anything. They start discussing water quality, stagnant vs. flowing , necessary aeration, plants inside to provide enough CO2. “…but in any case, they’re supposed to live up to 8-10 years.” Asian man concludes.

Curiosity overcoming self-consiousness, I walk up to their table and, smiling awkwardly, say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, I just couldn’t help but overhear you talking about something alive in that container, and I’ve been trying to guess what it is….” I trail off. They look at me. I look at them. It’s a freeze-frame. I back away and decide not to try that. Instead, I bury my eyes in grandma’s letter and attempt not to miss a single word.

She writes about living alone. Flowing organically from one sentence into the next, her prose talks of walking: “…which I prefer to do usually at about 1pm, after I have had my breakfast, cleaned up and gotten ready to pick up some things for dinner.  Usually when I come out, at about the same hour every day, most of the people out around me are also retirees. We stroll leisurely down the wide boulevards, understanding that at this time, the streets are ours. But several days ago I woke up late, my entire schedule had shifted and so it was past 3pm when I went outside. Everything was different. I noticed people around that are never there at 1 – young people, business people – rushing places, determined, focused. It wasn’t our place, cozy and familiar. I finished my shopping quickly and returned home. Since then, I’ve made it a point not to go out later than usual…”

Distracted by my merciless curiosity and jarred to action by an idea, I bolt out of my chair, pick up empty plate and cup, and head towards the counter as if to drop them off. On the way back, I peer with all of the laser vision I have in me to see what is in that container!! But I see nothing, and return to the letter.

The men are talking about Confucianism now: the importance of respecting your elders, the wisdom of doing all that you can while you still can. And in marriage, you cannot always hope for that perfect match, you have to find someone who is good enough, and value that. The other man replies, “I think, if you really love someone, you have to let them live to the fullest. You have to have the strength to give them the space they need. But we have that bond in common, and that part is ours, and we share it fully, together.”

Grandma continues, “I do often wonder, waking up alone, eating along, walking alone, every day alone, whether I’ve made the right decision. It is difficult, being on your own all the time…”

Moscow man picks up, “I want to overwhelm them with my generosity…”

At this point Borges chimes in, “In my view, that notion is not particularly exciting. I cannot say the same for another idea, however: the idea that the Almightly is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a yet superior (or perhaps simply necessary, albeit equal) Someone, and so on, to the End – or better yet, the Endlessness – of Time. Or perhaps cyclically.” He, of course, is talking about the imaginary writer Mir Bahadur’ Ali’s imaginary novel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.

I am distracted again by the mystery creatures in the container. These people will up and leave, and I will never know who was in there. A young employee comes up to the Asian man and reminds him about her paycheck. That proves my conjecture about him. Moscow man gets up, wishes his friend luck with them, and heads out. Asian man picks up the container and empty coffee cup and returns behind the counter.

Borges puts his finishing touch: “I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nimes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.”

I pick up the book, letters and pens, and exit stage left.

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