Monday, September 12, 2011

Space for a Universe

I was reading about circles on the beach the other day in this book called A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe that was recommended to me by a couple of my other nerdy awesome yoga friends. Perhaps I knew intuitively at age 15 or whatever it was that important things in life would all boil down to geometry – literal, psychological, erotic and otherwise -- when I took on Mr. May freshman year for his tendency to allow his narcolepsy to take precedence over his instruction on the Pythagorean Theorem. So here I am, 20 years later, getting back to basics. . . and math is hot!

I hesitate to make a connection between the kind of system being discussed in this book and what people think of when they think of yoga, because there is lots of room for misinterpretation. . . but I’ll try not to be a control freak about clarity and will instead just focus on circles. David, one of my homeboys who has been developing and teaching his own yoga system for many years, was talking to me recently about ‘truing the wheel –‘ based on the idea that the body is its own collection of perfectly fitting parts and precise measurements – and that each person is contained within a sphere that we can’t see but from within which we navigate our lives. A compass or a clock are also good metaphors to understand this point. The idea is that by ‘truing your wheel’ on every level – making ourselves round by radiating out equally in every direction from the perfect center -- there is hope for greater resilience and a less bumpy ride. One could also simply strive for aligning with 12 or true north with the idea of finding the central axis of the sphere. However you visualize it, the idea is about balance. The ten-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 -- an anniversary I was all too happy to experience in Italy -- has spurred a bit of conversation about religion and systems. The alternative to believing in a system is, I guess, to struggle to find meaning within what we call ‘free will.’ I’m not even sure free will actually exists – each of us crashing about in our own little spheres of reality, repeating cycles and riding along our bumpy roads.

There are more than 7000 nuraghe in Sardegna, a big beautiful island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Nuraghe are traditional round single towers that served as both dwellings and fortresses made of stones without mortar. Doug and I saw a bunch of them – or the remains of them -- as we meandered the beaches and winding highways of the Costa Smerelda. Circles are an economical use of space – which is news that apparently has yet to reach our great nation. It has, however, made it to various college campuses and hippie farm compounds where yurts and teepees decorate the landscape. Circles also provide protection – think about the circular shape of a cove giving shelter from the mistral winds, or the closing of a baby’s skull – the closing of the first sphere in life, and thus the point at which one soul begins to operate in this realm of circles and cycles. Today’s reading has been some dysfunctional family fiction, detailing several cycles of tragedy in a family in Nova Scotia in the early 20th century.

On the topic of circles, cycles and repetition, I was also thinking about Google maps – which are something that Doug likes to use. He likes his IPhone in general, as you can see from his work as my personal paparazzo. Doug is older than I am but far more embracing of technology – an embrace of which I am often the beneficiary. Last year in Barcelona, he used one of his fancy little apps (has this really become a word?) to find me the perfect not-too-hip-but-hip-enough salon for some much needed maintenance of my unruly tresses. There are over 200 beaches on the island of Sardegna – I think we visited maybe seven or eight of them – and we used the aerial views in G.maps to guide our graceful careening toward them, top down, blasting some nouveau Italian renaissance music purchased in a gift shop in Castelsardo. Seeing everything from an aerial view and then experiencing things on a street level is a reminder of repetition. How many cafes and beach towns and old Italian men drinking mirto (a lovely herbal digestivo of Sardegna) and vacationing families and piazzas and beaches and tops of heads there are in the world. . . so many! It’s enough to make someone feel insignificant.

Speaking of the top of the head, I ran up to Capo Testa a couple of times at sunset – Doug is currently other-abled, due to a recent knee surgery, so stayed at our house in Santa Teresa and fashioned delicious meals with one perfectly functioning knee. Once again, I was the grateful beneficiary of his aptitude and artistry. Capo Testa is the northernmost point on the island, and from it, Corsica is clearly visible. The top of the head is covered in the same glowing pink wind-sculpted granite seen throughout the island. The light in Italy seems to caress these rough craggy slabs of earth as candlelight does a weary face. One feels the impulse to merge with the stones and spend her days staring out at the deeply, shamelessly blue water – the land alternately enclosing and being pulverized by it. Ahhhh – sweet dichotomy. . . no rest for we beginning constructors of the universe. How can we possibly make peace with all these oppositions? Just as surely and deftly as the ocean can pull you out to sea, it can cast your sorry ass right back up to shore.

Last night in Olbia, where I would begin my air journey this morning, an almost-full moon shone down upon me as I wandered classically romantic cobblestone streets. I was following the map to what I later realized was not an ‘x’ but the imprint of a wet ‘x’ drawn in ink by the lovely hosts at Il Giardino dei Folleti (The Garden of the Gnomes – no joke). Though I never reached my planned destination – I have learned to appreciate happenstance, -- I did sit in an idyllic little piazza with a bunch of other late-summer travelers and rounded out my Italian vacation with a perfect capricciosa and some grilled radicchio. The impressive framed unicorn puzzle that hung over my extremely comfortable bed seemed to signal nothing less than magic for the coming weeks and months -- contained in my sphere, truing my wheel, rounder by the day.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Five Fountains and a Doorway

I like to give myself assignments – they help provide focus, a sense of purpose. I still have a hard time simply allowing myself to be and enjoy, and maybe somehow having homework assuages the guilt I feel about a rarefied lifestyle that frequently involves wandering foreign cities, swimming in exotic waters and imbibing decadent food and beverages sold in currencies with much higher value than the dollar. I maintain that these spoils are my house mortgage, my flat screen t.v., my twins in an ergonomic carriage, my debt-free existence. I suppose we all make our choices. It’s interesting to mingle with people whose lives I can only assume are quite different from my own – to imagine their blissful or miserable marriages, the affairs they might have with their surgeons, how they might empty or fill the spaces in their heads and hearts and wallets, how they might either never vacation or do nothing but vacation. I like to imagine how other people have meandered these streets, marveled at these ruins and creations, sipped Campari and soda in this or that piazza -- and to wonder what they thought about, what they felt, who they were talking with, whether they were happy, whether they had dreams.

Over the past five years, one of my oldest and dearest friends and I have met annually in Paris to reassess our lives, buy lingerie, drink wine and tell stories. Last summer we decided our 2011 trip would be a return to the country where we met, and to a city that neither of us knew well. I’d made a few trips to Rome during my year in Italy – once to see a Balthus retrospective, once to see a New York rockstar who had stirred my heart in a Communist youth club in Florence, and once to see a Giacometti exhibit. After not hearing about Rome being a big cultural destination for years, all of a sudden these past few months it’s seemed like everyone is flocking to Rome. I’ve wondered if the impulse is connected to the crumbling U.S. empire and our need to understand the history of another fallen empire. Who knows. In any case, we set our sights southward and adjusted our vision to Rome’s earthy amber-hued glow.

Italians are generally a bit warmer than the French. . . or maybe it's just that I feel more comfortable stumbling along through life among them using my stale Italian mixed with a bit of Spanish – being mistaken consistently for a Spaniard or Argentine -- than with French, which I never could pronounce or feel confident speaking. I prefer the roughness and audacity of Romans to the metrosexuality, unironic red pants and sweaters tied round the neck of the Costa Smerelda -- where I landed in Sardegna yesterday. I was picked up by my homeboy Doug to drive yet further north to Santa Teresa Gallura -- which has humble charms beyond those of some of its yacht-tastic neighbors to the south. I feel aligned with the Romans – their lack of subtlety, their unabashed flirtatiousness, their commitment to artichokes. They also mostly have brown eyes, which I find easiest to trust.

There have been other Hilary-Nupu international summits that have yielded a more complicated agenda than the kind that was this year’s result. This year was simple, simplicity being one of the hardest things for a couple of nerdy over-achievers to embrace. Buoyed by the F-train best-seller by Elizabeth Gilbert and decades of young romantics wandering the asymmetrical streets and alleyways of Rome searching for joy, clarity and elevation, we had an obvious frame of reference from which we might approach our journey. But rather than emerging with a couple new pairs of shoes and a list of essential things I need to do more of or do better in order to justify my existence -- a type of list I might have made in the past, -- I am instead engaging the wisdom of the many fountains we posed before, whose music soothed our ears, who reminded us to be more like water: flowing, moving around and over and under and through every obstacle. . . being soft but powerful, contained when necessary, always irrepressible.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bull Fighting

My friend Lewis tells me I could stand to fight less. Supposedly we were warriors on the same battlefield in a past life so I trust his advice, particularly on this topic. I have trouble distinguishing between situations in which I should rail against something that feels wrong, unfair, dishonest, fake, false or otherwise unpalatable, and when to simply accept ‘what-is’ and move on with life. All ill situations elicit the same response in me, which is usually some degree/combination of righteous indignation, sardonic humor, and ass-handing when applicable. I am aware that this fundamental weakness in my ability to choose my battles – not always knowing when to walk away -- has led me down many interesting, painful, fascinating and fruitless paths. I have sometimes only narrowly avoided bar brawls, misguided alliances of various genres, professional conflicts, and scuffles with all kinds of authority figures because of this aspect of my personality. I often wonder if and how I could reshape myself as someone more demure – and whether or not I should engage in such a pursuit. I’m sure there have been times in history where I would have been a candidate for some more brain-numbing, foot-binding, electro-shock therapy or other forms of obvious restraint imposed from without. . . a type of restraint we usually find a way of imposing on ourselves voluntarily. When the noise in our heads becomes intolerable, we find our refuge in some kind of anesthetizing agent. In any case, being true to what feels like ‘truth’ to me continues to be an expensive habit.

I’ve spent the last five days in London with my brother Gile, his girlfriend Sibylle, and my nephews, Owen and Rhys. Sibylle and I do similar kinds of work so we did some shop talking – which, among other things, led me to contemplate how our different temperaments and ways of getting things done might serve and work against each of us. She is generally more German, more practical, more easy-going and less trigger happy than I am. Owen, who is eight, shared one of his journals with me – which he had just completed with drawings and writing of words and thoughts with brilliantly creative spellings. One of the things that stuck with me was one page where he had written ‘different people have different thoughts.’ It was a humbling reminder -- along with some other conversations I had -- that each of us is mostly stuck in our own subjectivity, our own set of needs and fears and limitations and desires. It’s senseless to be angry at an apple for not being an orange. If you want an orange, you have to shop in the orange department – or at least in the citrus department. And furthermore, a work of Brutalist architecture might represent a point of pride of the Queens Park neighborhood to Sibylle, where to me it is a stark echo of the cold characterless architecture of Soviet Russia or Hampshire College. A Bikram yoga class – one of which I attended for the first time in about ten years in London -- feels at this point to me more than a little ridiculous, unjustifiably didactic and limited – but for others it is religious, or a gateway into the body, the breath and the comfort of a warm albeit fetid room, reeking of vitamin sweat. Different people need different things at different points in their lives. Different people have different thoughts.

Another piece of Owen’s artwork that Gile showed me is this intriguing representation of a ‘ninga slaying god,’ whereby ‘god’ is represented as a rabbit wearing a bustier and a fox tail. I think it’s a little early for Owen to have come to such serious conclusions about what-is, but I appreciate that he is grappling with such important questions as the nature and existence of god. Rhys, on the other hand, is pretty much all about hugging and cuddling, which is also totally fine by me.

We went to Camden on Sunday to see Ron Arad’s “Curtain Call,” an installation at the Round House. It was a series of short films – some animated, some live action -- projected onto a silicon curtain comprised of thousands of panels arranged in a cylinder. People were invited and encouraged to walk in, penetrate, cross, traverse – to watch the projection from within and without. . . which is kind of what I’m doing myself: watching the projections from within and without.

Rome is already opening its arms to me and my Spatalian language skillz -- I was approached tonight to star in a video that some 25 year-old Italian boys were making in the street. Nupu and I told them I was famous and they got really nervous. It was funny.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Practice, Memory and Song

Hugo is one of my favorite people. We met in an Italian restaurant in Portland, where I got my first real job at age 16. Pazzo provided an introduction to many things for me, including forbidden love, polenta, pinot noir, The Beastie Boys, people dying of AIDS, and much fodder for my developing fascination with human nature. Hugo and I used to meet in the afternoons before our night shifts to drink coffee and draw and talk about things. I remember being inspired by how everything he did seemed to be a work of art – a conversation, making a latte, folding a napkin. I was and still am pretty hopeless when it comes to drawing, but our tradition and friendship have endured.

After having visited once for my 30th birthday, I spent three months in Guanajuato a few years ago when I needed a break from New York, and have been back to visit every year since. While on hiatus from my life, I worked with Hugo and a cast of characters at his bed and breakfast in this picturesque and provincial town in the central highlands of Mexico -- where the church bell’s deafening toll reverberates several times a day, where there is an on-going battle with the taquero who sets up his cart on the corner and a never-ending variety of human drama unfolding. Latin Americans tend to love a bit of drama – perhaps inspired by their deeply entrenched relationship with telenovelas -- and so do the gringos who take refuge here from colder, darker northern cities.

Before arriving in Mexico, I enjoyed my last couple of days Brazil with Sandra and her Norwegian boyfriend, Kåre – we saw a Spanish movie with Portuguese subtitles, practiced yoga, socialized over some awesome fried-something-with-meat in a jazz bar with some other friends, relished Kåre’s culinary talents, and marveled at having cooking gas delivered on Easter Sunday morning. My image of Brazilian men of being somewhat contrary to stereotype was challenged upon meeting a surfer named Anderson on my flight leaving the country. With my cab driver on the way to the airport, I finally decided to change my name to ‘Eleanora --’ which is my middle name and was plan B after repeatedly being met with confused looks upon citing Hillary Clinton as what I assumed was a universal reference. It seemed important to leave Brazil with some kind of new facet to my identity.

These last days in Guanajuato have been a perfect finale to the last several weeks of wandering around – it is both known and unknown to me; it is familiar and yet still I am an alien here. I don’t really mind, though – the whole alien thing is kind of familiar and I’m mostly used to it. Hugo is also a popular outcast, so we understand each other. People here are friendly and curious, even if it takes a little work to get past their initial suspicion. I guess if I didn't find these challenges inspiring or interesting somehow, I would probably stay at home. I sang with a jazz band the other night at this restaurant where we always go – just one song, but it was a fun exercise in flinging myself out into the world in a new way. I experienced some molecular fusion cuisine for the first time, learned about Haikubes – which anyone who comes to visit me in Brooklyn will have a chance to experience, -- spent some time working with Hugo in his studio, contemplated an adult move like buying real estate, practiced yoga with cousin Daniel, and spent a couple of breakfasts breaking down some important universal questions with a feisty Brazilian advertising executive who was a guest in the b+b with his boyfriend.

Now it’s time to return to New York, wear some coconut jewelry to work, hang up my new lamp and watch the light and shadows it casts.