We are dirty with stars, dripping universe from our fingers, wiping its dust from our sweaty faces. Here we are; gatherers, havesters, re-arrangers of starstuff.
Portals and Voids
Some days, paintings are like windows. Look into a space that's just beside this space. The plane between here and there is impossibly thin, infinitely thin, impeccably thin, but perfectly impermeable. Here and there have different weather, different histories, and different physics, even though they are right right right next to each other.
Some days, you'll be standing, hands on your hips, looking through a painting-window, and someone will look back out at you. Someone or some thing. It's surprising, to say the least. You feel a soft shock in your spine.
Some days, looking into a painting is like looking into a cave. Or it's like looking down a well, up a skirt, through a crack, into a mirror. There's something tempting inside a good painting, something vast. It's only partially visible, because I've covered up most of it with this big yellow brush stroke. (Is a good painting modest? I want to obscure all the juicy parts, so that you only glimpse a flash of ankle, or a little bit of soft throat skin. Maybe. But maybe I want my painting to swallow you.)
Some days, what you thought was a window, and just for looking, is really a portal. You can jump through, if you're feeling brave, or lusty.
I jump in every time.
One day, I'm going to jump into a painting, and it's going to spit me out into another room. I'll be in Brooklyn, in my best friend's studio. Just like that. That's the painting I'm trying to paint.
Vast and Tempting
They say that the universe began with an explosion, something on a magnitude we could never understand. It left brilliant jagged tears in the swirling nothingness of space. Reds, yellows, blues, greens and purples burst through the fabric of space-time. Color was the only witness to the birth of the first stars.
The artist first painted a field of color pools by painting ovals of clear water onto her page and then touching a paint-loaded brush to the water, letting color seep across each oval. Once these ovals dried, she cut out hundreds of oval-shaped pieces of paper, and taped them to the page, masking out a spiralling shape. She then painted over the entire page with a dark reddish black, and then splattered the still-wet black layer with specks of pink, yellow, and blue paint. She removed most of the paper ovals, allowing the color-pools to peek through the black paint. In many areas, black paint smooshed beneath her neat ovals, creating jagged new shapes.
In order to properly study the poetry and intricacy of interstellar space, scientists have found it useful to camouflage themselves. A star explodes irregularly when it knows it's being watched; nebulae and other diffuse astronomical objects tend to condense under scrutiny. By merging with the cosmic background, researchers enable their interstellar subjects to interact un-self-consciously.
Paradoxically cosmic and camouflaged at once, our astro-explorers travel with ease. The light, malleable fabric is both easy to handle and resilient to the pressures of space flight. Hyperreactive to folds in space time, nano-sheets require no conventional fuel sources and are not limited by the speed of light in their travels.
With colored dyes, bleach, and black dye, we transformed our bedsheets into a deep star field, sprinkled with nebulas and distant star clusters. You've seen this style of space repeated often: on a computer background, as a print for cosmic leggings fabric, along the length of a roll of stellar duct tape. What does it do? Why does it matter?
Intergalactic-grade Nanosheets have revolutionized space travel. The light, malleable material is both easy to handle and resilient to the pressures of space flight. Hyperreactive to folds in space time, nanosheets require no conventional fuel sources and are not limited by the speed of light in their travels.
Floods, Oceans, and Pools
Charybdis, the time has come to spit the ocean back out again. You have let yourself fill to overflowing; you have taken in all the waters; the shore is lonely. But if you can hold your breath a little longer, wait for the moon to draw it back out, then we will be twin waterspouts. Soon comes the flood.
Mediations for a Florid Painting
1. Florid: Red. Ornate. Upset.
also: intent upon escape
constricted, immobilized, still to the point of bursting.
2. Sunbathers lie still, waiting for something to happen. Their towels stake their claims, colonize the beach. They are territorial. Regal. Naked. Vulnerable.
3. In the bible, the Old Testament, there is a scene on Mount Siani in which Moses sees the backside of God. And then for 40 days God speaks to Moses. Moses’ face becomes radiant - permanently sunburned - a mark of the wonder of this experience. Sunburns are always this way: your skin is marked - pigmented - colored - because of the physical experience of being in the presence of an incomprehensibly great force.
(And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.)
4. Every twenty-something today read The Giver in elementary or middle school. It’s a children’s novel set in a sterile, dystopian future: all decision-making and all experiences are organized by the state. A select few citizens act as repositories for the collective memory of the society. They are vessels to be filled with the memories of painful or violent experiences which the government has decided to withhold from the rest of the population. For example, no one but these select few “Receivers of Memory” know what a sunburn feels like. So the boy, the main character, Jonas, is programmed with an artificial memory of sunburn. He can’t describe this experience to his friends, because they have no similar experience of pain to reference. The wisdom of a sunburn is un-transferable; Physical experience is a part of wisdom which is essentially un-transferable;
Sunburn marks un-transferable experience - of warmth and pain. And time passed outdoors.
5. Last night, we watched Close Encounters of the third kind. We connect these things: Deus ex machina. The sun. A UFO. Paint itself. Sublime. Uplifting. Non-native. (We can’t count on you to intervene. We want to be able to save ourselves.)
6. There is no space in the world far enough away from the world to look back at it. No. Wait. A painting is a site outside the world.
(Archimedes: Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.)
7. I like beets because of their redness, and because they grow underground: they epitomize an attempt at sharing an un-sharable wisdom of experience. Beets redden underground through a lifetime of incomprehensible velvet darkness and mineral richness. We harvest them, boil them, eat them. We take them inside our dark, rich bodies: and we cannot absorb their redness. You know. Your poop is stained magenta. That heart of subterranean wisdom has passed right through you. Though it has nourished you, it cannot leave with you it’s essential redness, it’s un-give-able gift. Just like sunburn, beets’ redness marks un-transferable experience - of warmth and pain. And time passed outdoors.
On a hill in upstate New York (west of Albany) The fire caught, Rearranging Tim’s childhood. Memory like a tree, Writhing like a little living thing. His dad swears, "We watch flames behind the house Like a rat, with beak, eye, snout." Strong summer fires, The smell of bay leaves, tea leaves, cocoa leaves, Death like a deck of cards, being dealt.
He examines his memory of a Christmas tree Now that he has grown wise to the colossal hassle Of dragging it across town in a wagon, Of sawing the trunk to fit the base. He examines his home, sap soaked, Unsure weather to be a kid or have a kid.
We are finally old enough for the privilege: We carry our regrets Strapped across our backs or balanced on our heads.
The doorway collapses. Vein, artery, tube, cable, We have only a dim idea of what people could have used it for.
Home, there’s a whole world underneath: A coral reef, an orange universe, stalactites A 5000 year old drumstick. Coals like teeth caught on maple candy.
The fire is getting bigger, Turning white. I thought nothing more could happen, But they still transform. He examines chance, All the things he missed because they burned the fastest, Wilted like basil in a frying pan, Until he came to love, with no biases toward anything interesting. Strange how it’s bright over here, and over there, there is nothing.
Candle on fire: The wick lasts long past the wax.
I used to live in Providence. One day, I want to live there again -- I didn’t know how good I had it when I had it.
I’m going to tell you my Rhode Island swimming story.
It’s a ritual, and therefore kind of like a sandwich, which turns out to be a central metaphor in this story. What I’m saying is that it’s hard to remember eating one particular sandwich, because if you’re like me, you’ve eaten a lot of sandwiches in your life, and all your sandwich eating experiences run together. Which doesn’t mean you end up liking sandwiches any less. Similarly, it’s hard to remember one particular swimming story because there have been so many. We’re aiming for more of a montage today. And directions.
So. My friend Maggie would drive us to Carr Pond. Carr Pond is in East Greenwich. You take 95 south, towards Providence. Exit 7 towards Coventry, and then left onto New London Turnpike, left onto Division Road, right onto Carrs Pond Road, Carrs with an ‘s’. Talk to me later, I can repeat that for you.
It’s a kettle pond, I think. Which means that it was formed in the wake of receding glaciers. Or maybe it was once a reservoir, but now it isn’t. The water is really clear. You aren’t supposed to swim there, but swimming there doesn’t hurt anybody.
In any case, the pond itself is probably a half-mile across, surrounded by a ring of woods. The woods are full of hiking paths and ATV tracks.
Maggie would park her Subaru on the side of the road, near this boulder that we learned to look out for as we made the trip again and again. The boulder was abandoned by glaciers, too, I bet. It’s on the right side of Carrs Pond Road, about a hundred feet past a sharp right curve. Next to the boulder is the unmarked beginning of a footpath.
So we start into the trees, and walk for a half-hour or so. We have no kind of map-view understanding of the trail, just a memory of the path. It’s a left sandwich: right, left, right. Like the rights are the bread and the left is the meat. That’s how you remember it. Turn right after the rock wall, then left at the fork, then right, over the ridge. Maybe the walk is a spiral and we don’t know it. Maybe there’s a more direct trail, but we don’t want to know about it.
Like I keep saying, this is a ritual journey. One which has been traversed dozens, maybe hundreds of times. Drive to the pond. Leave your car on the side of the road. Walk through the woods.
This ritual, by the way, is best performed on a moonless night. You walk through the woods only half-sure that you’re still on a trail. In the blackness, you make out this rock wall, where the first right turn is. You actually walk over the wall, through a collapsed section, and then turn right and walk parallel to it for a while before path and wall diverge. You walk past a looming concrete tower. Then there’s that pillar, the left fork, which is at a gravelled part of the path, almost as wide as a two-lane street. You’ll walk over a little stream, eventually, and if it’s a particularly wet day, you can jump across the stones a few steps to the left of the path. And then we don’t so much see as feel where the path turns up the ridge, towards the water. I miss that turn, too, sometimes, so don’t worry if it seems tough to find. It’s about two minutes past the stream.
Pee here, on this side of the ridge. Really, there’s a bush behind which we ritually pee. You don’t want to pee in the lake’s watershed.
And then we climb over the ridge, down this steep sort of gully, and we’re at a sandy little beach that’s maybe twenty feet wide. It’s really not much more than an opening in the trees...
So we take off our clothes. This part is great when we take strangers with us -- the surprise nudity. I’m not going to tear your clothes off by any means, but I am going to exert a strong social pressure. Maybe it’s night time, anyway. No one can see you.
Mid-November is a little late in the year for this part of the story to make perfect sense. Imagine that it’s late September. Maybe early October. You’ve been wearing a sweater. Now, standing naked on the water’s edge, you’re real chilly. But you’re thrilled, too, to be on the brink of such a noble swim. One year, Maggie, Geddes, and I swam every single day in October, to super-acclimate our blood for the wintertime.
So you wade, shivering, into the water. You take a few dozen strokes away from shore. You swim out to where you can’t touch the bottom any more, and then you stop, tread water, count yourselves, assess your situation.
Looking behind you, you can barely see the break in the trees. The silhouettes of your clothes draped over that bleached log. Ahead, you watch the blinking red lights of an antenna. You swim out, for some endless amount of time, towards the middle of Carr pond.
There, in the middle of the pond, is a tiny island. It’s ringed by trees, but the center of the island is bare. The trees are actually all blueberry bushes. And in the summertime it is guarded by water snakes! Don’t worry, they are probably buried in the mud by late October.
At night, the island looms up suddenly, rearing above the treeline behind it. It appears, as if your swimming has conjured it.
It’s a sort of holy-of-holies. The inner sacred circle of a sacred place. There’s a ring of roads, a ring of woods, a ring of water, a ring of snakes, a ring of blueberries, and then this bare center. That’s where you go.
It’s also, I should mention, like a sandwich. Again. Like we’ve finally gotten past the bread and mustard and lettuce, to the meat.
Once, Maggie and Geddes and I camped there, in the center. We swam to the island, and we tethered ourselves to a little row boat filled with gear: a tent and blankets and cliff bars, and all that. We pulled the boat behind us.
And I can’t tell you about our night spent on the island, but for you, that isn’t what’s important. This is about your future. I’m showing you the twisting path through the woods, just like Hoy Loper showed me, just like Hannah Mellion showed him, and back into the annals of history.
Maybe it will be summertime when you go, and you will eat blueberries. Maybe it will be pitch-black, and you will splash a lot to scare the snakes. Maybe the geese will be resting there, mid-migration. Maybe it will be a full moon, and almost as bright as day. There are echoes, too. If you call, the water answers.
You get yourself to the center of the island. And that’s it. You see for yourself. Then you swim back to the beach, struggle into your clothes, jump up and down for a minute to get warm, walk back through the woods to the car, parked by the boulder. Out the other side. A symmetrical ritual. Home again, like nothing even happened.
Now, I wish Carr Pond was like those ‘once you touch this chain letter you must open it and pass it along or else your mom will break her back’ kind of chain letters. It’s my own evangelical religion. There’s a real, practical point to all this.
It’s an hour and a half from here, actually an hour and twenty-eight minutes, says Google Maps. Not even a big deal. Rhode island is a tiny-ass state. So here, what this is, is it’s an invitation.