Turn, Turn, Turn

Upon learning that I went to the art show at Navy Pier over a recent weekend, a few friends asked me if I saw anything that I especially liked.

They know I love to opinion-ate and considered that I might be an enthusiastic messenger for some budding trend.

Well, I began, there was a lot of colorful blown glass, which I always appreciate, but I can’t think of any special method or material that captivated me.

There was one thing I saw though, I went on, that made my day…and I went on to recount the story…

Upon entering the exhibition space and seeing a seemingly endless cement floor partitioned into 20 or 30 foot carpeted mini galleries, I devised my plan. First, I would take the long aisle to the farthest side, near the little café they set up, and walk my way back to the entrance crisscrossing the shorter aisles.

The exhibition areas were numbered and had ample signage should anyone want to trace their way back for a second look at something. As I didn’t have buying anything in mind, it was simple enough to focus on the ceramics and paintings and sculptures I saw and keep walking

Smaller items sat in well-lit Plexiglas cases. Larger items were positioned against clean walls so they could make bigger impressions. All the objects were displayed to their best advantage.

Besides wearing lanyards or laminated nametags, it was generally easy to spot the artists. They had a certain sense of style. Even if on a budget, their outfit, or streak in their hair, or unusual eyeglass frames seemed to be carefully picked out. It was obvious they cared about how they looked.

I also listen to the banter between visitors.(It’s amusing to hear what someone likes or what they don’t like and why.)

And I like to hear the artists PITCH their work.

Many artists feel very uncomfortable with this, but they are only half-done after they sign a piece. Their work needs to be selected to get into a group show or purchased to be displayed in someone’s home before what they do can be enjoyed.

…So, I had just reached the end of an aisle. I saw a short stack of shallow boxes composed of blonde wood, maybe 20” by 30”, leaning against a faux wall. Each was filled with folds of colored paper, maybe two inches deep, in various hues. The continuous meandering folds gave the pieces extra depth.

I could see that each of the three pieces were renditions of the same idea only in different palettes. Two young artists, Japanese men, wearing dark-framed, narrow glasses and not your father’s type of sports jackets, had successfully drawn a couple, potential buyers, a few steps in from the aisle to look at their work up close.

One of the men held up a piece.

You can hang it this way, he said…

Then he rotated it 90 degrees to the right.

Or this way…

And again, he turned the frame another quarter turn..

Or this way…

The young couple nodded silently as if they were being indoctrinated to a great secret of the universe.

Well of course, when you rotate any piece of abstract art, it shows up differently. It conjures up different moods and associations.

I had to keep from laughing that this bit of information seemed positively revelatory to these potential buyers.  It seemed obvious to me.

But as I left the show, I was grateful for the reminder.

Knowing that there can always be something new in your life when you dare to look at something differently is no small thing.

 

Autumn Bloom

For some reason, here in the Midwest, it feels like spring happens overnight. Regardless of what the calendar says, one day, the muddy gray, rainy landscape turns lush and green. Crocuses seem to bloom and leaves fill out branches seemingly overnight.

Like when Dorothy steps out of her Kansas cabin, newly landed over the rainbow, everything goes from black and white to Technicolor.

Fall announces itself slowly. The leaves on trees start turning colors. The temperature goes back and forth between hot and dry to cool. People debate whether it’s time to remove and store window air conditioners or wait a little longer. Fall creeps up over weeks.

That’s somehow fitting. After all, we mark births by an exact day and hour. Dying or going into hibernation is a process.

One day last week, while I was walking home from my physical therapy appointment, I saw a small collection of sunflowers in front of the Bateman Elementary School.

A few blooms were low to the ground but several came up over four feet. Sunflowers, I read, tend to open up mid-summer or in the fall. Somehow, they seem especially suited to fall.

Their golden color seems to go with the changing colors of leaves; the burnt orange and blazing red or crackling brown.

Generally, one bloom comes out per stem. For me, spring and summer seem like more social times. Activities, like picnics or concerts, are enjoyed in groups. Fall seems to be more of a solitary season. In October, I might put some thought into what movies I want to include in my Netflix queue or what foods I might want to stock in my cabinets or freezer.  I expect to be at home more — alone.

And of course, sunflowers actually turn to face the sun during daylight hours. This so captures the mood of fall. Knowing that the sun will be scarcer to see and feel on my face and arms for months, I want to drink in sunlight now as much as I can.

It’s funny to think of the season as having a special bloom, and maybe it’s just my tendency to want to see what’s unique or special about things, but I have an unusual fondness for sunflowers.

I don’t even think about cutting them or buying a bunch at a farmer’s market and bringing them home to put in a vase.

They’re at their best when they out in the wild, when they’re overgrown and a little unruly, when they crown a fibrous and thick stem in such fullness it’s automatic to think they could topple the plant over; when they share their space but are not too close to each other. Maybe part of their beauty is that each sunflower seems to be a solo act.

So, I had to snap a picture of this sunflower in front of the playground of the Bateman School. It was about my height (5’4”) and perfectly imperfect.

The head or bloom of a sunflower is actually composed of many flowers. I stared at the small yellow petals, ray flowers, that fanned around the dark mysterious center, a mega-cluster of disk flowers that clung to each other as they turned towards the brightest spot in the sky and sought warmth.

Standing in front of a flower, face-to-face, is no small thing.

Following the Footsteps

It’s Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of summer. As a country, we take our folding lawn chairs and coolers out of storage and we gather at barbecues. Maybe we’ll mark the day by joining neighbors to line a street for a morning parade.

I know Memorial Day was created for us to consider sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, whose lives were lost in the service of our country. I have come to view the holiday in a broader context.

I want to take time to remember the lives of family members and strangers that have offered lessons to me or inspired me.

I don’t normally think of myself as sentimental and am not a history buff, but I can’t help but notice that my travels to all range of destinations have included a trip to a cemetery whose history is intertwined with the location.

During my trip to Buenos Aires a couple years ago, I walked between the elaborate tombs of Le Recoleta Cemetery to see the final resting spot of Eva Peron (her tomb is marked by her maiden name, Duarte).

After descending the narrow and steeply inclined streets of Monmartre, on a visit to Paris in 2012, I paid attention to the line winding around the entrance to Pere Lachaise, a cemetery whose inhabitants include Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Maria Callas, although it seemed that the biggest crowds gathered to spend a few moments at Jim Morrison’s grave.

A visit to New Orleans, a favorite destination, would be incomplete without a visit to the Lafayette Cemetery along Washington Street in the Garden District. During my 2015 trip to Memphis, besides Graceland and Stax Records, one of the places I made a point of stopping by was historic Elmwood cemetery.

A slow walk among the gravestones (when I was ten, I remember my sister referring to cemeteries as marble orchards), I felt as if I was walking through time. I looked at low gravestones and read the names out loud. There were Chinese names in two public lots, probably belonging to laborers who were brought over to pick cotton or to work on bridges or railroads or other big projects. Chinese families, in Memphis, I thought. Who knew?

Besides flagged markers over the graves of Confederate soldiers and the tall monuments of wealthy, high society families, I looked for the grave of the University of Alabama’s famed football coach, Bear Bryant, and the grave of Sun Ra who, in his own way, led a revolution in music.

Here, in Chicago, I might get a history lesson by visiting Graceland cemetery, where visionary industrialist Gorge Pullman is buried, supposedly in a lead-lined coffin and a steel vault to dissuade the left leaning population from desecrating his grave. Or, I could visit Waldheim (Forest Home) just west of the city, where laborers, martyrs of the Haymarket Riot, are buried.

In the Jewish side of Waldheim, it’s not uncommon to see small black and white photographs decorate the upper corner of granite gravestones. I remember looking at the pictures and considering the dates that bookended different life spans. I’d think about the immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe; children and parents, grandparents.

Many souls came here following a dream. Many lived long lives and others only a few years. Some faced special challenges and others just did their jobs. Some changed the world (or, at least their corner of it), and others just showed up.

This Memorial Day, I’m thinking about all of them. Not just soldiers.

I don’t think it’s SACRIFICE that leads me to check out cemeteries wherever I travel, although sacrifices were made. I’m touched by the COURAGE of individuals, expressed in the choices and actions that defined their lives.

It takes courage to fight in a war. It takes courage to raise a family. It takes courage to leave home and start over in a new town or a new country. It takes courage to be an artist. It takes courage to be a complete human being, to navigate between personal interests and supporting the family and community, which may support you.

Remembering, with love and respect, the courage of those who have walked on this earth before you, is no small thing.

 

Goose Island

On Sunday, I was running an errand in the Goose Island neighborhood. It’s a section of the city that was named after a small (maybe one square mile) patch of land that formed where two branches of the Chicago River met.

It probably got its name because it was a resting spot for migrating geese managing their seasonal trek. Now, the term refers to the original plot, accessible by bridge, and surrounding area, which is now a very hip, industrial area. It’s home to the Wrigley Gum’s research facility and a variety of businesses operating from restored lofts.

After I emerged from my shopping mission and headed toward my car, I caught sight of a band of geese at the corner of the parking lot.

On a small rectangle of grass, only feet away from the heavy traffic of Division Street, I saw two or three grown-up, long necked geese with iconic hunter green heads and maybe eight brownish goslings, adorable in their awkwardness.

It seemed that they didn’t belong in this scene; so close to delivery trucks and train tracks and discount store parking lots, only a couple miles from a great city’s business district.

Then I thought, Oh yes. They were here first (or, at least, their great, great, great grandparents were). After all, this is GOOSE ISLAND.

I watched them for a few minutes. I marveled at how at home they seemed to feel in this spot between stop signs and dandelions. They weren’t bothered by traffic. I looked on as they scoured the grass for discarded pieces of bread or potato chips, hoping to feast on what people threw away.

The simple beauty of this affected me on different levels.

It’s always great to see a slice of nature up close. Successfully hunting up things to eat, the geese were just being geese.

It was even more delightful to me that this bit of nature could be seen in an unnatural surrounding. It’s heartening to think that birds can find what they need on a small lawn near a busy street.

But I had to laugh at my own joke, my pronouncement. I considered that the sight shouldn’t surprise me being that I was in Goose Island.

It fit.

There’s a certain type of beauty when things FIT.

Mathematicians call proofs elegant when the logic seems to work. Crime detectives seem to think of perfect crimes only when they have figured out perfect solutions. Engineers may get effusive over gears that mesh or seals that are truly impenetrable.

I suppose, as a writer, I shouldn’t being surprised when a word or phrase really sums up the essence of something. It’s something to strive for. When a phrase is both truthful and ironic — it makes me happy.

So the family of geese was hanging out in what could be thought of as an ISLAND of grass, surrounding on all sides by concrete sidewalks and a blacktopped boulevard and parking lot. In GOOSE ISLAND.

To see beauty in things, even in words, simply because they FIT, is no small thing.