“Take more time, cover less ground.”
My father’s taste in art leaned toward landscapes of the southwestern desert, hand-woven Navajo rugs, Native-American pottery and beautifully detailed Hopi Kachina dolls.
In the late sixties when I was living in New York, my parents came to visit. I booked a room for them at the Warwick Hotel located down the street from the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
My wife and I had a studio apartment on West 76th between Broadway and West End Avenue. If the light was right and you squinted and you had a properly romantic view of life, you might have described our apartment as Bohemian. It wasn’t; threadbare would have been a more accurate description. Our neighborhood, which is now completely gentrified and pricy, was at the time called Needle Park; wasted addicts prowled the streets and needles and syringes were common in the gutters of the neighborhood. On the bright side, many artists, young actors, musicians and writers lived nearby. Rents were rent-controlled and cheap.
My parents visited our neighborhood, at most, two times. The rest of their visit we met them, at my mother’s request, at their hotel. A walk through Greenwich Village in the daytime seemed to arouse in my mother visions of slasher movies.
We had invested in a membership at MOMA, in great part because they had wonderfully curated film series (it was there that I learned about screwball comedy and film noir) and we could go to the movies every night for free which was perfect for our budget. And it was air-conditioned which in the summer was a godsend. (We would attend tapings of the Dick Cavett Show because the temperature in the studio was kept just above freezing.)
We took my parents to visit the museum. It didn’t begin well. One of the featured exhibits was Modern Design. Among the artifacts displayed in glass cases were a Coca-Cola bottle, an Olivetti portable typewriter and a very modern designer toilet. I don’t remember the manufacturer of the toilet but I’ll never forget my father’s reaction: “They’re trying to tell us that a toilet is art? People pay to see this?”
The next gallery featured contemporary lithographs. My father moved quickly through the room then paused to look at one of the works. He covered the name of the lithograph with his hand and called to my mother who was half way across the room, “Eleanor, come here.”
My mother, who couldn’t bear to be called attention to (if she could have chosen between the superpowers of flying and invisibility, there is no doubt in my mind she would have chosen invisibility) said (in a stage whisper), “Tom, keep your voice down.”
“Come here, he repeated and she walked over to the lithograph. “What do you think it looks like?
“I don’t know.”
“It looks like a slice of pizza.” She said in as quiet a voice as possible. (I have such a vivid memory of this moment, and yet I can’t find corroboration on the image.)
My father took his hand away from the title card and said, “You’re right! Pizza! Art.”
I want to make clear that my father wasn’t being bullying or mean or mocking. He was having a great time, thoroughly enjoying himself as he kept up an on-going commentary on “modern art.”
And then we moved on to another gallery and suddenly my father came face to face with Andrew Wyeth’s masterpiece, Christina’s World. He stood completely still, as if frozen in place, spellbound.
My mother looked at me and shrugged as if to say, ”I have no idea what’s happening here.” He continued to stand in front of the painting. My mother motioned me go up next to him and make sure he’s okay. I did.
“Dad . . .”
He held his hand up. “I’m okay. The rest of you just go ahead. I’ll catch up.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed his eyes which I realized were brimming with tears. “I just want to spend a few more minutes here.”
I came back to check on him several minutes later. He was still there in rapt communion with the painting. He saw me and said, “I’ve never seen anything this beautiful. Do they have any of his other paintings here? This is art.”
There were, as I recall, some other Wyeth’s there but none captured him. He did pause for a minute in front of Edward Hopper’s painting, House by a Railroad. “Very good,” he said, “very good. Beautiful.”
The four of us left the museum and had a late lunch. My father didn’t say much, it was if a part of him was still standing in front of Christina’s World.
“Isn’t it just beautiful?” he asked my mother.
I discovered later that year, when I gave my father a framed print of Christina’s World for Christmas and he insisted on hanging it in a place of honor in the living room, that my mother was not nearly as enchanted by the painting as Dad was.
Whenever I’m in New York, I make time to visit MOMA. It’s a pilgrimage really. I may or may not look at any other art in the museum but I spend time with Christina’s World and the window it represents into my father’s soul (which I had seen glimpses of before and was blessed to see many times after that). I don’t know that I ever saw his soul more radiant and pure. He was lost in, I believe, the rapture of beginners mind. He had “become as a child and entered the kingdom.” I make the pilgrimage, not really to see Christina’s World but to be at one once again with my father.
In my father’s encounter with Christina’s World, he’d ceased for a moment to be a tourist or a husband or father. He was a pilgrim and he’d come without planning on it to a holy sacred place. It forever changed him.
I try to be mindful of my life being a pilgrimage and I could not have begun to imagine what a pilgrim’s life would be like if I had not been witness to my father’s extraordinary, spontaneous initiation.
Our guide on a tour of India described pilgrimage as a “difficult journey under taken with intention.” In general the experience of tourists is one of translation. This is perfectly natural; we take in what we see based on our own cultural expectations. In India, many in our group could only see through the lens of privilege or perhaps more accurately through a lens of an unconscious fear of the a loss of privilege. Our first day, we visited Raj Ghat, the Gandhi memorial in New Delhi.
I got back to the tour bus ahead of some the others and was talking with the driver when he said, “Turn around.” There, in the middle of the street, were an elephant and rider standing less than two feet behind me. The elephant’s trunk, forehead and ears were painted with delicate designs. (I have a photograph with the elephant that I lack the technical skills to transfer to this blog.)
This was just the first of what became increasingly untranslatable experiences.
On the bus many of my fellow tourists would, in one breath, comment sympathetically about the poverty of the country, and, in the next, complain about the air-conditioning on the bus.
Viewing India from my point of view as a privileged and comfortable Western man, I could not help being made uncomfortable about the difference in the Indian standard of living and ours. And then it happened! And I am not—thank God—the only one on the bus who saw it.
Our bus entered Jaipur (the pink city) described by someone as the color of strawberry ice cream. (It may have been Mark Twain, but I can’t find the source to confirm it.) It was rush hour. Our guide explained that India had many laws about driving but, in general, they were ignored during rush hour. At one point an elderly turbaned man, put the palm of his hand on the windshield of our bus to stop us until he was safely on the other side of the street. A city bus pulled alongside us. It was packed so tight that someone, like myself, who suffers from claustrophobia would have had to be removed from the bus and taken to an ER. Atop the bus were another twenty or so men, sitting lotus style, fully engaged in conversation, as their bodies swayed easily to the erratic rhythm of the lurching bus. A pickup truck passed us with almost as many people in the bed of the truck as were on the bus. A man rode past us on a camel. We stopped for a sacred cow—literally, a sacred cow. I was entranced.
And then—I swear again, I’m not the only one who saw this—a motor scooter, driven by a young man, pulled alongside the bus, seated side-saddle on the back of the scooter was a beautiful young woman draped in a royal blue sari; as the scooter paused for a moment beside our bus, it was clear to see that the woman was holding a sleeping infant in one arm as she kept her other hand on the shoulder of the driver as the scooter wove gracefully in and out of traffic.
Suddenly, I was no longer a tourist but a pilgrim! I was no longer focused on the poverty in India, but hungry to know what the Indian people knew that I didn’t. Beginner’s mind!
In the U.S. this family would have been cited for not wearing helmets and arrested for child endangerment for not having an appropriate, government approved car-seat. (I saw another motor scooter with four boys on board—oldest to youngest—in school uniforms, white shirts blue neck ties). I saw women walking along the roadside dangerously close to speeding traffic but apparently un-phased by it, comporting themselves with the grace and posture of high fashion models. All of them we’re wearing traditional saris, their arms decorated with multiple bangles; many balanced baskets on their heads. Impoverished or not, they carried themselves like goddesses.
At sunrise in Varanasi, the sacred city, I watched as a young man set fire to a funeral pyre as other family members watched and prayed. A few yards up the river people were doing laundry; others were bathing. (We were repeatedly warned not to drink the water from the river. One member of our group did drink the water and projectile vomited her way through the New Delhi airport.)
What do they know that I don’t know? It gnawed at me.
Suddenly I realized what a fear-based society I come from; I did not see this fear in India. Life in India requires agility, resilience and almost minute-by-minute resourcefulness; fear is a luxury. “Life in India, as far as I could tell, “is just life.”
I noticed that the staff in every hotel answered each request with the phrase, “No problem.” I’d heard that phrase repeatedly in the United States especially from younger people and it always seemed to mean, “Chill, old man.” But that’s not what it meant in India. I came to realize it meant, “Sir, or Madam, you are under the spell of what Hindus call Maya (illusion) and there is literally no problem except in your perception. I started to laugh. I got the joke! They were saying over and over, “Can’t you see, there is no problem!”
Back in the United States I began to pay attention to the marketing of fear for profit, in television commercials, in political campaigns, in the preaching of certain spokespeople for religion. The Maya of fear!
My most recent pilgrimage began after I saw the Oscar nominated film Hidden Figures (see my 2/21/17 blog Learning to See as Another Sees) which I thoroughly enjoyed—a real feel-good movie. Then I discussed it with a treasured African-American friend who pointed out the scenes in the movie which were put there to make Caucasian tourists feel safe and good. (In a million years, this would never have occurred to me.)
A week or so after our conversation, I saw the documentary about author and witness James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (see again my 2/21/17 blog). This film is not for tourists. James Baldwin’s writing makes no allowances for tourists. He challenges pilgrims to accompany him on a “difficult journey undertaken with intention.”
Although Baldwin, died 30 years ago, many of his sentences read as if they had been written this morning. His command of language is extraordinary, almost incomparable. I’ve finished two of his books of essays and I am midway through the third. For me, his writing is like an oasis with abundant water that appears just in time for someone dying of thirst in the desert of his illusions. He is a rigorous and unsentimental guide to the largely repressed history of race and racism in the United States. Nearly every essay holds up to harsh examination the prevailing and romantic myths about our country. In this age of uber-nationalism and alternative facts, Baldwin has become for me essential reading.
Beginner’s Mind, one more time.
“I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.” -James Baldwin