You can take the girl out of Philadelphia, but you can’t take Philadelphia out of the girl. My visit this weekend reminded me of the devout pride Philly has in its teams. Yesterday, in a horribly long line for the register at the Center City Trader Joe’s, an announcement came over the loudspeaker instructing customers to chime in and sing the Eagles’ fight song, on the count of 3. That happened, in a big way, with boisterous Philly enthusiasm. Today, the at 30th Street Station, in “Eagles Nation,” the arrival of my train home was energetically announced by an Amtrak employee, wearing an oversized green Eagles jersey, beaming, shaking hands and high-fiving passengers as we filed onto the escalator. While I love the home I have made in Providence, RI, for tonight’s Super Bowl, I’d rather be an Eagles fan.
First blizzard of the new year. The day-long efforts of the man outside my window strike me as snow version of Kobo Abe’s 1964 book, Woman in the Dunes. The film version, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara is unforgettable and uncannily relevant.
I happened upon an article in The Times of Israel chronicling the recent discovery of “history’s oldest smiley face,” After 7 grueling years of excavations near the Turkish border of war-torn Syria, the site of a famous biblical battle, archeologists uncovered a 4,000 year-old pot featuring the classic, stylized representation of a smiling face, comprised of the black dots and arc reminiscent of Harvey Ball’s 1963 design. Commissioned by an insurance company as part of a campaign to bolster the morale of its employees, the smiley face quickly became part of popular culture. It is central to today’s text-based cyber-communication, conveying tone and emotion through facial gestures in the short-hand language of emoticons.
Reading of the survival and re-emergence of this smile from 1700 BCE has filled me with a sense of hope. It also resonates with my choice of handbag.
When I rediscovered a treasured smiley face purse from childhood last year, I knew it was just the right accessory for me to sport once again. The election year had quickly escalated from strange to disturbing, and I felt the need for just such a bright spot. I have worn this bag in the subsequent 6 surreal months. My sartorial decision has had more impact than I could have imagined.
On a regular basis, people stop me on the street, honk and wave at me from their cars, approach me in stores, symphony halls and on public transportation, grinning, laughing and warmly letting me know how much they love my handbag. The day after the violence in Charlottesville, a somewhat dour woman eyeing me on the subway suddenly, earnestly, thanked me for wearing the bag, “especially during these times.” I found myself responding, “It helps, doesn’t it?”
What I’d thought was my private, playful fashion statement seems to be providing a much-needed public service. In troubled times, there is solace in discovering that each of us can be ambassadors of goodwill, even with a simple smile.
I recently attended my first squash match at Brown University’s Pizzitola Sports Center. It was an afternoon featuring the top men’s singles players from Brown against Princeton in one of the last meets of this season. Beyond the spectacular display of athleticism and strategy, I found myself enjoying an unexpected inter-disciplinary arts extravaganza.
It’s a fast, hard game, not for the feint of heart. The improvised, high speed same-sex pas de deux, performed by opponents in a circumscribed 4-walled court, has an intensity and grace that rival a choreographed modern dance concert. With speeds up to 176 mph, the repetitive, percussive Edgard Varese-esque thwack of the ball against the cubicle walls is hypnotic and engaging. Could artist Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing #118 have been inspired by the trajectory of endlessly surprising angles traveled by a squash ball in play? A player’s ability to change the direction of the tiny hollow rubber ball at the last instant is a tactic used to unbalance one’s opponent. Gravity appears to be defied. Sound and movement are driven, unpredictable and exciting, the elements of great theater
And then… there are the walls.
Each court is covered in what looks, at first, like an updated abstract version of Upper Paleolithic Chauvet Cave painting. Bearing the scars of thousands of black marks chronicling prior squash battles, the white walls simultaneously exhibit documentation of the past as well as a live performance-art work in the making. In the visual art world, this kind of process-based art-making, where drawings are mostly composed of the residual markings of movement, emerged from the Abstract Expressionism and Action painting movements. Although I found the multiple squash matches exciting and engrossing, I confess, I found the walls equally enchanting. As I watched speeding balls creating the accumulation of new black marks in varied compositions, my mind wandered to art history.
Jackson Pollack’s landmark 1940s drip paintings were the result of his actions, the paintbrush merely an extension of his arm. Each movement would fling paint onto the floor canvas. In the late 1950s, Shiraga Kazuo, eliminated the paintbrush altogether and used his entire body as the art-making tool. Suspended, he painted with his feet on floor-based canvases, and once wrestled mud as a public performance. John Cage’s Cleaning My Pen, an undated artifact from the composer’s days at Black Mountain College and Art Center is, as advertised, a sheet of the repeated black ink marks with which fountain pen users are familiar.
William Anastasi’s pocket drawings of the late 1960s involved paper sheets folded into eight squares, making them small enough to fit into the artist’s pocket. As he walked, he held a tiny, soft pencil against the exposed paper inside the cramped space of his pocket; the resulting marks graph his movements. When he deemed a section complete, Anastasi refolded the sheet, creating a new blank surface; the process began again.
Using paper as a stage, dancer Trisha Brown, in her work It’s a Draw/Live Feed, 2003, moved across a sheet large enough to encompass her whole body. Holding pastels or graphite in her fingers and toes, she rolled, pivoted, pushed, skidded, pulled and swooped, breaking her materials, skipping them over the surface, rubbing up the texture of the floor beneath, sweating, fidgeting, smearing, resulting in a series of drawings.Barb Bondi is an artist working today in the tradition of mark-making as evidence of human activity. In her ongoing Work Effort Subset Series, she dusted the wheels of her office chair with powdered graphite to record the imprint of the chair’s wheels as Bondi completed a week of work, making tangible the efforts of labor.
To create her work titled Suspension, Bondi slept in a head-to-foot spandex body suit enhanced with compressed charcoal fragments to record body movement. She slept on a 72 X 38 inch piece of Stonehenge paper mounted on plywood. When she awoke, the charcoal had marked her movements during sleep.
Kevin Townsend, another contemporary artist, created Residue of a Shadow. The gallery installation of gilded tea bags filled with powdered graphite, responded to any movement in the space, transferring graphite which marked the wall, creating the drawing. Townsend states, “Deposited over time, as human movement through an interstitial space caused the bags to sway- the force of each impact adds a fine layer of graphite…So much of what I’m working with now is about what is left behind, the residue. Our memories are like this, the accumulated residue of our actions, the debris of sensation and cognition accumulated over time, marking us.”
My squash meet reverie may not reflect the passion others have for this compelling sport. Nor will it be of much value in the continuing debate on inclusion of squash as an olympic sport. But take a look, next time you can, at the art that is happening where you least expect it.
This Shabbat, what is striking about reading the Torah portion chronicling the story of Noah and the Great Flood is not only its message of hope but the coincidence of its appearance this year in the calendar, midway between Election Day and the World Series, 2016.
As Rabbi Rachel Zerin shared in her uplifting comments about the story of Noah and the Flood, we are in the midst of a seemingly endless, toxic, Presidential election season. Our collective spirits have taken a beating. Zerin pointed out the symbols making Noah’s story one of hope in the midst of his experience of the destruction of the world. In spite of blinding torrential rains, as Noah built the ark, he included a window to provide a view of future clear skies. Noah had to have been an optimist to gather pairs of animals to insure repopulation of the planet. Flooding from the 40-day storm lasted 150 days longer. Due to impossible conditions, this extreme “rain delay” kept the people and animals on the ark for 7 more months before they could exit and resume the business of living the future that Noah’s optimism had enabled.
It is difficult to imagine the scene in those final ark-bound hours. I find it just as hard to ignore coincidence of the timing of final game of the World Series just a few days ago. As reported in the New York Times, “If you are going to endure years — no, generations — of futility and heartbreak, when you do finally win a World Series championship, it may as well be a memorable one. The Chicago Cubs did just that, shattering their 108-year championship drought in epic fashion: with an 8-7, 10-inning victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7, which began on Wednesday night, carried into Thursday morning…”
On top of the Cubs and fans’ 108-year wait for a win, rain threatened to postpone or even reschedule Wednesday’s game. The weather held up through the eighth inning. The Cubs carried a 6-3 lead, six outs away from a cathartic victory. But a double and a two-run home run by the Indians wiped out the lead tying the game. The deadlock held through the ninth inning. The top of the 10th inning was rain delayed for about 15 minutes by a deluge. Once it let up, the Cubs came back strong to score and win the game and the Series. In the case of this modern day miracle, there was no need to simply imagine the scene. Television and social media gave us a front row seat from which to witness the emotions of long-suffering Cubs fans praying, sobbing, chanting, wielding signs and amulets at Wrigley Field and beyond.
Perhaps I am alone finding comfort in this particular constellation of Torah, politics and baseball. Just as travelers, when lost, can always rely on the stars to guide them, I believe that years like these, when the world seems to have lost its moorings, we need to appeal to the cosmic and Divine. I may not have control over much, but I do choose to lead a kind-spirited and moral life and to celebrate the power I have to cast my vote on Tuesday, even if it rains.
God works in mysterious ways. I await, with faith and hope, whatever happens next.
Now, in the Hebrew month of Elul which precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is the time to get to the heart of the matter. This is a time of awakening ourselves (aided by the sound of the shofar every morning but Shabbat) to the task of a thorough personal accounting, from the year that is ending, of our deeds, our relationships and our souls. Elul is also seen as a map to our inner heart potentially serving as the key to the depth and power of our inner heart. The Hebrew letters that make the word “Elul,” aleph, lamed, vav and lamed, are an acronym for the phrase (from the biblical Song of Songs) ani l’dodi v’dodi li, which means “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” This sacred song has been thought of as analogous to the love between a married couple, our relationship to the Divine and our relationship to keeping the Sabbath. I think it can also symbolize our relationship with the self we hope we can become, the marriage of who we have been and who we strive to be.
At the start of of Elul, according to the Zohar we are achor el achor, meaning “back to back.” The work of the month is to be panim el panim, “face to face.” In a year that has perhaps been difficult in our personal and professional lives, our country’s political life and a challenge to hopes for peace and repair of our planet, we are, appropriately, deeply discouraged. Hopeless, that our prayers have not been heard, we turn away from our dialogue with the Divine presence we define as God. But we also turn away from ourselves, in despair, turning our backs on our goals and dreams.
My Elul prayer for us all is that during these strange and dispiriting times that we do not also become disheartened. Instead of losing heart, we must use this opportunity our tradition provides to do an “about face.” May our reflections, re-evaluations and dreams during all the days of Elul and the yamim noraim 5777, provide us with humility, insight and optimism for the year ahead and always.