October 22, 2010

black magic

Mark Rothko made me do it. I will be ever grateful to that plenitude of enigmatic black paint in his chapel for pushing me out the door. Because, at eighteen, I really did not get it. Well, them. Fourteen giant canvases of dark earth to inky night, arranged in an octagonal building on the grounds of the Menil Museum in Houston, Texas. They are oddly appealing, but opaque. Very opaque. And very very black. No words of explanation anywhere, though declaring it a chapel implied an obvious spiritual intention. In no way obvious to me, I asked at the museum for a book. The attendant suggested the Brazos Bookstore, just down Bissonnet Street.

Independent before that adjective was even necessary, the store was small and beautifully strange to eyes just now emerging from twelve years of parochial schooling. Exquisite art monographs hung like paintings on thin bracket moldings along the east wall. Categories like “Shambhala” and “Jungian Analysis” leapt up from short stacks alongside the sunny windows. But, most intriguing to me was a ten-foot by ten-foot block of shelves on the back wall behind the desk, dense with curious titles and crowned with but one word, capitalized. TRAVEL.

Stocked not with guidebooks or maps, but rather with paper portals into time and place like Hans Christian Andersen’s A Poet’s Bazaar or Alexandra David-Néel’s My Journey To Lhasa, the shelves almost seemed to put their arms around me, enveloping me as I leaned into them, exploring for hours. I had found a door to, well, not C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe, but one filled with Asiatic lions and shamanic witches and, apparently, ways to get OUT. Out of Houston, yes. But also, out into the world, far out.

This was a desire I hadn’t yet consciously voiced, but now was all but yelling at me from inside of me as I kept seeing, right in front of me, a world of different ways to see the world—to think about it, to touch it, to get my arms around it and hug it. To get going, get out and get IT… whatever it was. I bought My Journey To Lhasa and went back to the big black paintings. I saw horizon lines in them now. I began seeing a lot of horizon lines, all around.

This past year, a friend laughingly described his elderly, conservative and somewhat crusty father-in-law’s introduction to the Rothko Chapel. The old man, after being guided to a bench, let go of his walker and basically plopped in front of the primary triptych. Fifteen feet by fifteen feet of, well, black. Nose crinkled and eyes acute, he stared intently for a long time. Many minutes later, he cheerily announced to the room, “Oh!  I see it now. It’s an eagle!” Almost ten years ago, my daughters were exploring a nearby urban park when my youngest, only three, pointed into the space between two bushes and suddenly exclaimed, “A zebra! Right dere! I see a zebra right dere!” Her big sister, now in kindergarten and quickly disabusing herself of such personal magic, chided her. “No you don’t!  You do not see a zebra right there!” Undeterred, my toddler spun around, found a large fig tree to peek under, and emphatically proclaimed,  “A tiger!  Right dere! I see a tiger right dere!”

When I first saw that casement of books—mysterious, dark, even a little fierce—it seemed at first like a literary Rothko. But, by leaning into more and more books in the Brazos Bookstore over many more years, I began to realize that all of these stories, like all art, were the opposite of intimidating. They were, and always are, invitations. They are there for us, not us for them. Meant to be explored. Meaning nothing if they are not explored, and embraced.

I just asked the Venezuelan man I love and live with what “brazos” means in Spanish. “Arms, Mi Amor. Why? Why are you crying?” Because I see now that many years ago the world gave a young girl in a small shop a hug when she really needed one. Because I see more clearly now all the ways that the universe invites us to come out and play. I see it right dere.

Categories: My Journey to Lhasa