Monday, April 30, 2007

Birthdays, Boys, and Buddhas; An afternoon at the musem

Gifts can be treacherous things. They can delight or disappoint us, offer sudden revelations or accessorize deceit. Such a lot of power, isn’t there, underneath all that shiny paper? I, for one, am never content to take the object at face value. I’m always looking for something else, for what it can tell me about the way things really are. How much effort was expended, how much thought given to its procurement? You can probably tell, I’m a lot of fun to shop for.

It’s not so surprising, I guess, that birthdays don’t bring out the best in me. It’s nothing to do with getting old and dying, I don’t need a special day to worry about those things. For the birthday problem, I blame my mother. That probably sounds awful, but I don’t mean it to be. She’s always been great at birthdays. Growing up, my birthday was my day, simple as that. Perfect cakes and perfect presents and me, me, me. How could I possibly expect anyone else’s efforts to live up to hers? And yet I do, and so am endlessly disappointed, through no one’s fault but mine. Not always, but often enough you’d think I might have learned better by now.

At their worst, presents can confirm all of your worst fears. The generic necklace snatched up at the last minute from the boutique next door to his office yells out, loud and clear, “He’s just not that into you.” And somehow you’ve still got to get through dinner. That was a great night.

The best gifts, though, can knock you down and take your breath away, with the force of the messages they carry. It can be quite a shock, discovering just how well know, and loved, you really are. Those don’t come along that often, but when they do? Wow.

My membership to the Rubin Museum of Art, in Chelsea, was a gift like that, a couple of birthdays ago. Boyfriend had planned a nearly perfect day. There’d already been a sweet, sweet morning, brunch I think, and a massage I’d been desperately needing, complete with aromatherapy and hot, hard stones. I could do with one of those right now, come to think of it. My neck is knottier than an old pine tree.

In spite of all those good intentions, all that thought and effort, it was my birthday, and I was in rare form. My mood was mean, and I was in a panic over all the weight I’d gained since we’d moved in together. If anyone had warned me just how bad cohabitation would be for my beauty, I might have reconsidered. Then again, the break up diet does work wonders. My skin’s never quite recovered, though.

So, off we went to the Rubin. I’d been wanting to go since I’d first walked by it, months before, but somehow just hadn’t done it. We live here so we can have these things close by, and then end up too busy, or too tired, too overwhelmed, or just plain lazy, to do anything about them, until someone else has the good sense to drag us out.

Just getting me to finally go through those doors could have been gift enough. Before we’d even passed the admission desk I knew I’d found something important. And I was right. However lazy I may ever be in my own meditation practice, however distracted and disgruntled I may allow myself to become, an hour in the Rubin, surrounded by the centuries of Himalayan art, all those Buddhas and Bodhisattvas hanging on the walls, reminds me who I am, and what I’m looking for.

One of the exhibits up that day was called Eternal Presence, Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art. Paintings and drawings by and of celebrated Buddhist teachers and deities, incorporating their traced hand and footprints. Looking at an eighteenth century painting of the Shamar Lama, an important, and often problematic, figure within the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, I would swear to you I felt time stop, if such a thing were possible.

It was the hands and feet that did me in. They brought an intimacy and immediacy to the painting I’d never imagined possible. The Sharmapa’s hands were there, right there, so were his feet. I’d never experienced anything like that in a museum, or anywhere else, before. I have since, though, right there in the Rubin.

Bringing me to that could have been gift enough. I can be awfully lazy. It’s entirely possible that, left to my own devices, I could have walked by those smooth glass doors a million times, without ever opening them once. A membership of my very own though? That was almost more than I could bear. I can’t think of a time when anyone with whom I don’t share DNA has tried so hard to please me, or to know me, to bring me to a place that felt so much like home.

But things aren’t always what they feel like, are they? After we broke up, I did lose all that weight, or most of it at least, and lots of other things as well. One of them, for a while, was the museum I’d quickly come to think of as my own, the Rubin. I went out of my way to avoid even the sight of it, that whole block of Seventeenth Street ceased to exist, as far as I was concerned. Out of sight, out of mind, or so they say.

I missed my museum, though. I missed it a lot. I had gotten into the habit of popping in a couple of times a week. My office at the time was just a few blocks away, so whenever I felt my mind skitter skattering around itself, I could head down to the Rubin, for that quick hit of equilibrium, and the reminder it offered of the importance of disciplined daily meditation practice. I could only stay away for so long.

I’d been thinking myself in, out, and all around the Rubin for months, keeping myself well away from it in the end. One day, when for once I wasn’t thinking, I found myself walking past, and still without thinking, went right in. I couldn’t help thinking, for a minute, when I pulled out my membership card, but I put a stop to that as quickly as I could, and kept on going. Thinking is often highly overrated.

This time, it was a painting of a thousand armed Avalokiteshvara, that drew me in. Avalokiteshvara is sometimes referred to as the Compassion Buddha, sometimes as a great Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a being who has achieved perfect enlightenment, and could be released from this cyclic existence and all of its suffering, but chooses to stick around, out of compassion for those of us who are still muddling around, far from perfection of any kind. A Bodhisattva’s entire being is dedicated to helping all sentient beings achieve enlightenment. In the case of Avalokiteshvara, he is sometimes represented with one thousand arms, as his ceaseless compassionate activities require nothing less.

Buddhist practice, like any other, demands discipline and diligence. Unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered, though, it rewards the practitioner with an awareness of the world’s boundless compassion. Pay a little attention, and you might even catch the occasional glimpse of your own infinite compassionate capacities. Who do you thank, though, for a gift like that?

Monday, April 23, 2007

I Love Lila Futuransky!; Sarah Schulman's "Girls, Visions, and Everything"

Around this time of year, the weather starts to make me a little crazy. I want summer, and I want it now. Since I can't have summer yet, I like to at least read about in, in books like Sarah Schulman's second novel, "Girl's Visions and Everything," . Originally published in 1986, it is the story of an East Village summer, in the life of Lila Futuransky, "a general dyke about town, alternately entertaining and antagonizing the people she bumped into, tripped over, walked with, and the women that she slept with." Lila, "always knew she was an outlaw, but she could never figure out which one." I first read this book when I was nineteen or twenty, and after all this time, it is still entirely possible that Lila Futuransky is my hero.

Lila is twenty-five. When I was nineteen, that seemed like such a glamorous, grown-up age to be. Now that I am thirty-something, it strikes me as almost impossibly young. But Lila is simultaneously more grounded and much freer than I was at that age. While her friends are skipping town for the summer, she has decided to stay put. She roams the East Village, making art, having adventures, thinking and talking about ideas with her friends, and then writing about it all in her sweaty little apartment, typing as fast as she can. The book feels like it was written with all of that immediacy. I can't think of anything I've read that's given me such a sense of being in the moment, in the place.

The book begins the week before Memorial Day, when Lila is on her way to an assignation with an actress, that doesn't work out quite as she'd hoped. Instead, Lila spends the evening walking around and talking with another woman, Emily. In her thirties, Emily is a little older than the rest of Lila's tight knit circle of friends. She's also carrying more baggage, of a darker variety than they seem to be, is more tentative in her ambitions, and less daring in any dreams she allows herself. She is also lovely, smart, and oddly sweet.

Lila is bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by Emily from the start.. One night, another spent walking and talking on the East Village streets, because it's too hot to be inside, and neither has any money to do much else, "she just watched the different expressions Emily's face was capable of. Sometimes she seemed like a dress-for-success executive whose bra was held together with staples. Then she became a silly girl sitting over a Tab in a coffee shop. Lila began to wonder, was she courting this woman, or were they just making friends?" Who hasn't had that moment, of wondering if you're at the beginning of something that's going to be something, or just making a nice new friend? I love how well Schulman evokes that feeling in this passage, the close watchfulness of it, the waiting, the anticipation, and the hoping but not quite yet wanting to hope because, of course, you never know for sure, until something or other happens, and then you do.

Each time I read, "Girls, Visions, and Everything," and spend its 178 pages with Lila Futuranky, I find myself wondering if I want to be her, leading that life of art and ideas and energy, or if I want to be her best friend, to know she's always available to me on the other end of the phone, to talk about my own ideas with, and borrow some of that energy when I need it, or if maybe I'd like her to be my girlfriend. I do know that one of the things I like so much about her is something that reminds me very much of myself., and would drive me crazy in a girlfriend. Lila and I share a tendency to think way too much about absolutely everything,, and this, I can tell you, doesn't make anything easier for either one of us, or for anyone we're dating.

Thinking too much can get in the way of doing things. In Lila's case, it almost keeps her from ever getting together with Emily. After another of their nights of walking the streets and talking, Emily invites Lila to spend the night. Lila's in bed, listening to Emily falling asleep, getting cranky because, well, she's in bed with Emily, listening to her falling asleep, which is not what she had in mind. Then Emily asks her if she's anxious, or maybe changing her mind, and wanting to go home. Lila the overthinker answers, " I... look, I thought you wanted to sleep with me. That's why I came home with you. Look, Emily, tell me the truth. What are you trying to pull here anyway? I mean, I don't always understand all the time what you mean by what you do." Emily answers, " ' Why do I have to initiate everything?' ... with impatience in her voice, as though it was all so obvious." And, after all, she did invite Lila to spend the night, in many circles that is considered about as obvious as a girl can get without wearing a sign around her neck.

Once Emily and Lila get going, Schulman does a wonderful job of capturing and passing on to us the specificities of what goes on between them. It is complicated, and confusing, and often wonderful. Moments like this one, after Lila and Emily have spent their first night together, "Lila watched Emily consider whether she should be her lover or not. She watched her have a thought, decide to articulate it and then do so." and this one, "It was knowing that she had sought this woman out, night after night, because she wanted Emily's hands between her legs, because she wanted Emily's fingers inside her, because Lila loved Emily's wrinkles... It was knowing she had sought her out and now Emily was in her." build upon themselves to tell us one story. A story that feels real and true, in part because it doesn't come too easily to either of these characters to allow herself to be known or loved in such a way.

But there's another story playing itself out alongside Lila and Emily's love story. It isn't any kind of love triangle, as we might expect, given that Lila tells Emily, long before they become involved, "Listen, I have lots of crushes all over the place. I just sit back and look at them and think, some of this will come to be and the rest won't, so I'll just enjoy imagining it all for now." It isn't any other woman Emily has to worry about, it's Lila herself. Or rather, the ideas and visions Lila had about her life before Emily's appearance. She'd been a solo act, swashbuckling around, making everything up as she went along. But then she met Emily, and everything changed.

As many times as I've read this book, I always forget how devastating the ending is. Every time, I'm rolling along with Lila and Emily, watching them put on shows and fall in love, and letting them remind me that, "even when life is sad, people still have a good time." And I am having a great time right along with them, until we get to the last two pages. When Lila climbs out onto the roof of her building, and realizes that continuing her relationship with Emily, who she loves, and by whom she is loved, in ways she'd never imagined possible, will require her to give up the future of limitless possibilities she'd always held onto so tightly for herself. Some people might say that moment of realization is what growing up is all about. But I don't want Lila Futuransky to grow up, not if that's what it means. I want her to have her Emily, and all of her other dreams as well. So, I'm glad I don't know what she chooses in the end, though I hate having to leave her out on her rooftop, "sobbing so hard she was swimming through her tears," not knowing if the tears are for dreams of the future she's letting go, for Emily, or simply because she now knows she lives in a world where people are forced to make those kinds of choices.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Whose Life, and How Does it Look? "Family Happiness, by Laurie Colwin

Recently a friend told me Laurie Colwin’s wonderful book, “Family Happiness,” had made him want to be in New York, “living that life.” I thought little of it, at the time. After all, countless books, movies, magazines, probably even a post it note or two, make me think “I want to be in New York, living that life,” and it’s a book I’ve loved for a long time. Rereading it this week though, I found myself wondering, which of these lives had he meant?

“Family Happiness,” originally published in 1982, is the story of Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, a happily married young mother of two, from an old, uptown Jewish family, who has astonished herself by falling in love with a downtown painter. Polly and her particular life the novel’s heart and soul, but it’s real richness comes from all the life around her. She comes from a large and at times difficult family, but Colwin resists the trap of allowing any of its members to fall into cliché. However briefly a character enters the story, she grants us a clear sense of who that person is, and what sort of life he or she is leading.

Mary Rensberg, for instance, a minor character who plays a major role when Polly’s at her lowest, is described as “small wiry, and blonde. She smoked unfiltered cigarettes, wore men’s shirts, real silk stockings, and diamond earrings. In her conversations she was heavy and slangy; she swore constantly. Every Sunday she went to church in the company of her teen-aged daughters, Dulcie and Daisy.” Mary also owns a little antique shop, which is apparently a great success, despite her inclination to tell callers that “Mrs. Rensberg has gone to Brazil.” Colwin gives us just enough to know who Mary is, and why she’s there. She’s eminently familiar, and wildly exotic all at once. I’d definitely like to hang around with a woman like that. I might even be interested in a life like that. The stockings and the earrings, certainly. The daughters and the churchgoing, maybe not.

It’s Polly’s life we’re most engaged with here though. The middle child, and only girl, in her dynastic family, she married appropriately, and in a timely fashion, and has never thought to stray from the straight and narrow. Polly is, genuinely, cheerful and helpful and kind. She is, and always has been, upright and virtuous and true. This turns out to be a great advantage, when she begins her love affair, because no one ever thinks to question Polly’s coming’s and going’s in the slightest.

Polly has the sort of life my mother wishes I would have, or at least aspire to. Polly lives uptown somewhere (Colwin never tells us exactly where, but for Polly, my money’s on the West Side), in a big, beautiful apartment, with doormen and elevator men, and endless rooms. She’s married to Henry Demarest, a successful lawyer from a dynastic family of his own, and has two sweet, funny children. I don’t generally like children ,in books or life but even I like Polly’s two, so they must be pretty good. She works three days a week as a reading specialist for the city department of education. She wears cashmere and tweed, and shops at bakeries and little markets. She likes to cook, and secretly likes it when her children get “slightly out of hand.” She is sweet, smart, and funny. And she is having a love affair.

The object of Polly’s illicit affection is Lincoln Bennet, a downtown painter, who lives in something that sounds very like Westbeth, only older, “a row of studios that had been built for artists in the 1920s.” In general, his neighborhood sounds very West Villageish to me, but that’s really just a guess. When I hear the phrase, “downtown painter” I imagine someone grungy and annoying. Someone who talks endlessly about painting, what it means to him, how hard it is, how necessary, yet does remarkably little of it. Someone who lives in squalor, who never has any money, and cannot be relied upon to show up when he’s said he will. All in all, someone who will make for a very bad boyfriend.

Lincoln is none of those things. Of all the lives in “Family Happiness,“ it’s his I’d most like to have. He is that mythical beast, a successful painter. He has shows here, there, and everywhere. He paints things, and then he sells them, without a lot of tedious talk about it. Both he and his studio are clean and lovely. He is trustworthy and reliable. His only display of any quirkily artistic temperament is his prodigious love of solitude “only when he was alone did he feel really comfortable and authentically himself.” Before meeting Polly, he’d fallen in love with a girl named Audrey. Lincoln and Audrey had gotten engaged, and even moved in together. Everything should have been perfectly fine, except it wasn’t. “It was a disaster for Lincoln. Domesticity rummed against him like a hair shirt. How he could be so much in love and so miserable at the same time amazed him. It seemed overwhelmingly clear to him that he could not live with another person…” Audrey left him, as well she should have, all things considered, and Lincoln resigned himself to a loveless life. Then he met Polly. Really, a happily married lady couldn’t ask for a better boyfriend.

If anything about this book feels dated, it is the idea that a book about adultery doesn’t have to be a melodrama. Because Polly is, in fact, happily married. Her marriage is having a rough patch when she meets Lincoln, but it is nonetheless a pretty good one. It takes awhile for her to get there, but she ultimately concludes that, while the timing may have opened the door to her love for Lincoln, it’s existence doesn’t mean her marriage is dead. Nor does a reinvigoration of her marriage put her love affair neatly to rest. This isn’t a difficult book, but it is a complicated one. Colwin refuses to take any easy outs, and so denies them to her reader as well.

This book could have gone in easier directions. We’ve all read those books, haven’t we? There’s the book about the woman who thinks she’s happily married, till she meets some intriguing new man, realizes her marriage is lacking everything she holds most dear, and runs off to someplace hot and exotic with her lover. Or the book about the woman who’s marriage is saved, after pages and pages of therapy, soul searching, and dramatic fights, after her husband finds out about her affair, and ultimately realizes he drove her to her affair with his benign neglect. Or the book about the woman who finds herself through her affair, whatever that exactly means, but chooses to leave both husband and lover, to break free of her family too, and takes up something like pottery, or poetry, and find some new relationship and way of life entirely. All of it very clear, and simple. Things go one way or another. They work out, or they don’t, and either way, here’s what it looks like. But that’s just not how Colwin does things.

In “Family Happiness,” as in all her books, Lori Colwin sets out, successfully, to show us that life is neither so difficult, nor so uncomplicated, as we would like for it to be. Things get messy, and sometimes they stay that way. The trick isn’t learning to tidy up all the mess, it’s learning to live with a little chaos. Uncertainty is our constant state of being. As Lincoln tells Polly towards the novel’s end, “It’s pointless to wonder what will happen. We could both get very sick of this. Things could change.” And sooner or later, one way or another, of course, they will. Till then, Laurie Colwin would like us all to drink a little more champagne, and look our best, whatever we think that means.