February 2013

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Attention

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The view this weekend from my kitchen window

Robert Hass begins his extraordinary collection, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, talking about the photography of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams:

What the two artists have in common, besides a name, is a certain technical authority. The source of that authority is mysterious to me. But it is that thing in their images that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking. I think it’s something to do with the formal imagination. I don’t know whether photographers find it in the world, or when they look through the viewfinder, or when they work in the darkroom, but the effect is a calling together of all the elements of an image so that the photograph feels like it is both prior to the act of seeing and the act of seeing. Attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention comes to life.

This passage is full of such powerful thoughts, and I appreciate being reminded of the inimitably wise quote from Simone Weil. Yesterday while we were dealing with the disruption of 27″ of snow piled everywhere in Boston, I posted this quote on Facebook from Philippa Perry‘s book, How To Stay Sane:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to…The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved…If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up. … The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

One friend read that quote and shared this wise additional insight: “What we speak (and I’m adding “listen to” and “believe without questioning”) becomes the house we live in.” — حافظ Hafiz, Persian Poet.”

The house I am living in, literally and figuratively, is changing. I am leaving the arduous navigation of snow narrowed streets for several weeks of trekking in the wild outdoorness of New Zealand. I am asking Hass’ idea of the “formal imagination” to accompany me.

I am back here, Slowly Musing, after March 4.

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Zachary Quinto as Tom, Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield, and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura in the A.R.T.’s production of “The Glass Menagerie.” (Courtesy A.R.T./Michael J. Lutch)

The Glass Menagerie is a play that has touched me in a tender place for a long time. I grew up with this Tennessee Williams masterpiece, first seeing it performed when I was in high school. As theater trends were moving increasingly towards the Pinteresque (characters at the mercy of each other, relentlessly brutal struggles for domination and submission,) The Glass Menagerie does not take us into fierce confrontation. It is rather a jewel box of heartbreaking awkwardness set in a family hermetically sealed in its dysfunction. A family that looks and sounds terrifyingly close to Tom Williams’ own.

American Repertory Theater’s new production of TGM is so well done that it is my all time favorite. As the play begins Tom tells the audience, “this play is memory.” Director John Tiffany holds fast to that overarching theme of the dreamlike nature of memory and the way the past continues to haunt us, to inhabit our thoughts. Tiffany’s staging offers a glimpse into the Wingfield’s tenement home but this is not a play about the gritty realism of life being lived in the 30s. (Williams spoke about his disinterest in writing “the straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and ­authentic ice-cubes.”) The set, two hexagonal platforms which Tiffany describes as a “hydrocarbon molecule”, sits atop a reflective floor that feels like water. Or like open space. The Wingfield family is afloat. Adrift. Alone.

In Tiffany’s words:

I feel connected to what Tenesse Williams writes…because it’s about fragility and it’s about people. What he’s trying to say is that the world should be a place where damaged people like these can live, and it’s a disaster that it isn’t. Because Williams was a damaged, fragile person himself, I find the way he writes about damaged people deeply moving.

Cherry Jones is luminous as Amanda, a woman who struggles between her dogged desire to be cheerfully optimistic and the perilousness of her current circumstances. Like many dealing with a painful present, she lives in the past as her only refuge from suffering. Zachary Quinto (you might know him as the “new” Spock in Star Trek) plays Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger is Laura, and Brian J. Smith is the unforgettably named Gentleman Caller. Each has found the pivot point for their character. Together, as an ensemble, they are delicately tuned.

Rewiewing The Glass Menagerie in 1944, Claudia Cassidy wrote this in the Chicago Tribune:

Too many theatrical bubbles burst in the blowing, but `The Glass Menagerie’ holds in its shadowed fragility the stamina of success. This brand new play, which turned the Civic theater into a place of steadily increasing enchantment last night, is still fluid with change, but it is vividly written, and in the main superbly acted. Paradoxically, it is a dream in the dust and a tough little play that knows people and how they tick. Etched in the shadows of a man’s memory, it comes alive in theater terms of words, motion, lighting, and music. If it is your play, as it is mine, it reaches out tentacles, first tentative, then gripping and you are caught in its spell.

A timeless play. An unforgettable production. Another stunner from Diane Paulus‘ A.R.T.

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In front of Mandaliya, at the opening of my show at Spaulding Gallery (Photo: Marcia Goodwin)

It is a fine line that we ask ourselves to walk. My work requires hours alone in my studio, silently conversing with the work emerging in front of me. It is a form of primal nakedness, working that way, best done in private.

Every once in a while it is necessary to unfold that frock in the box under the bed, the gown of “adequate social skills,” as I needed to do for the opening of my show on Friday night. During those three hours anyone can enter your world. Conversations ranged from an in depth discussion of Sianne Ngai‘s provocative book, Our Aesthetic Categories (which has had me spellbound for months) to questions about why you seem to really like the color blue.

Most artists are jugglers. The intense focus required to do their work must be handled gingerly while the “everything else” part of life conspires to distract, erode and undermine. But wait. Is that really an accurate model? With so much discussion about the forces in our culture that are veering us towards attention deficits, multiplexing overstimulation and an absence of contemplative time, maybe this isn’t the right way to see things.

Benjamin Nugent‘s opinion piece in the New York Times on Sunday helped me put this into perspective. He starts his piece, The Upside of Distraction, with this:

Writing a book consists largely of avoiding distractions. If you can forget your real circumstances and submerge yourself in your subject for hours every day, characters become more human, sentences become clearer and prettier. But utter devotion to the principle that distraction is Satan and writing is paramount can be just as poisonous as an excess of diversion. I tried to make writing my only god, and it sickened my work, for a while. The condition endemic to my generation, attention deficit disorder, gave way to its insidious Victorian foil: monomania.

Monomania is what it sounds like: a pathologically intense focus on one thing. It’s the opposite of the problem you have if your gaze is ever flitting from your Tumblr to your spreadsheet to your baby to rush-hour traffic.

Nugent describes a period in his life when he had crafted an existence that allowed minimal distraction from his writing: No Internet, TV, iPhone or interesting neighbors. He was at his work with complete monomaniacal focus.

The disaster unfolded slowly. The professors and students were diplomatic, but a pall of boredom fell over the seminar table when my work was under discussion. I could see everyone struggling to care. And then, trying feverishly to write something that would engage people, I got worse. First my writing became overthought, and then it went rank with the odor of desperation. It got to the point that every chapter, short story, every essay was trash.

I could not imagine why; conditions were ideal. It took me a long time to realize that the utter domination of my consciousness by the desire to write well was itself the problem. Monomania, a 19th-century malady to which my 21st-century immune system had developed no defenses, had crept into my soul, like gout into a poet’s foot, and spoiled it by degrees.

When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane. I lost the ability to cheerfully interrogate how much I liked what I had written, to see what was actually on the page rather than what I wanted to see or what I feared to see.

So Nugent assessed the patient and applied a sensible change in diet. He fell in love, started hanging out at his girlfriend’s house which came with wifi, flatscreen TV and a DVD player. He joined a band. “One morning, after I diversified my mania, my writing no longer stank of decay. Eventually, it sat up and took food.”

While most of us have heard Jonathan Franzen’s warning that you cannot be a serious writer and have Internet access, Nugent is suggesting more of a middle way. It may be like any dietary advice—every body has its own needs and as the owner of one, it behooves you to find out what yours likes best. I do know the one thing all artists share: A passionate desire to produce the best work possible. And to achieve that, we will do whatever is asked.

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