The Enduring Metronomes of My Heart
IT was a move from one red leather armchair to another, and this time the reading material was different.
In 1966, I left my home in a small city in Illinois to go to boarding school in Connecticut. I wanted to go; it was my idea. But I knew I would miss one very special room in my home, the library.
It was where I went to take my weekly trip into the New Yorker. I knew more about what was going on in that city, to which I had been only twice in my life, than I did about what was happening down the block.
The New Yorker was always there, warming in the winter on the shelf over the radiator, ready for me to pick up for my little excursions. Also there in the library was the row of decades of the monthly American Heritage. I read and reread stories about famous Americans, stories that I would never get in a history book at Hufford Junior High. Ceiling to floor, the bookshelves lining the room were filled with novels, old textbooks from Dad's medical school, an encyclopedia, history books (Durant, Churchill,
etc.), and best of all, art books.
I sat in the big leather armchair in that room, wrapped myself in a comforter, and started a fire when it was cold. There, I read the New Yorker and those books, particularly, as the years went by, the art books.
When I got to that school in Connecticut, I found that the library was a bigger version of what I had at home, with more books, more magazines, and more big red leather armchairs. Early in my first year there, I picked up a copy of Art in America and began reading about and looking at work that was completely new to me, the work of artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The art in the books in my parent's home was pre-World War II. Abstract Expressionism was a new and resonant world to me.
I spent hours poring over issues of that magazine, learning in a willy-nilly fashion about these artists and studying images of their art. And the name of one institution kept coming up, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I wanted to go there. Finally, I did.
By my sophomore year, I had convinced my parents to let me go to New York alone. I remember walking into the museum and noticing the huge spiraling staircase with an Alexander Calder mobile (by then I knew from the magazine what a Calder was) hanging overhead. I paid and went in. I went straight for Rothko and company, and I was amazed at the scale of the work, huge canvases inviting not only a look but an immersion into color and mystery.
I had never seen anything like this place. The building and the art took me on a leap into the "now." My parents had beautiful art in their books and on their walls. But this was art that fed more than my hunger for beauty. It was art that told me that I was not alone in how I felt about being alive in America in the mid-20th century.
When I was about to leave the museum I was stopped in my tracks by a picture unlike any I had ever seen: large canvas composed of just two colors, orange and green, a large bright green square surrounded on three sides by a field of orange. The painting was by the minimalist Ellsworth Kelly. There was no confusion, no overlap in its two bright color fields with clean geometric borders.
I stood in front of this picture for a long time.
It was like a mantra for the eye. I felt that I was in the presence of something new and true. That picture gave me, gradually, the experience of "zero," not as deprivation but as a new kind of fullness. I bought a poster of that painting and have had it with me ever since.
In 1974, I went to Yale to study theology. No one was more surprised by this decision than I was. A year before I had been planning for law school, but when I finally listened to my heart instead of my fears I realized that I was no more suited for a law career than I was for my father's medical profession. That left me at a vocational "zero," which was OK since I had learned a little from the art I loved about how to be there and wonder and wait.
What came from the waiting was a surprise. When I went home and gathered my parents into the library to announce my intentions, my mother, as she told me later, had expected me, from my hesitant demeanor, to announce an engagement. But it wasn't a girl, yet; it was transcendence that had started to emerge and all of the questions that go with it. So off I went to Yale, which is where I thought I could learn more about the new territory I had entered.
But what I learned during that first year was how far and how fast I could wander from the questions and ideas I had when I arrived there.
I was unskilled at negotiating this new inner turf.
When that happened, I knew it was time to go to where I had been helped in the past. For me, that was a museum, this time the small but extraordinary Yale University Art Gallery.
I looked around the contemporary art section. But somehow the eccentricities of most of it did not help. So I went back to what I had known well from those days by the fire in the armchair at home. I went back to Degas and company, and there it was.
It is a small Degas painting entitled, "Ballet Rehearsal." I stopped in front of it in the way I had stopped in front of that Kelly painting nine years before. It was not an act of choice but a response to being chosen by a picture. I believe that pictures choose us just as I believe that we are chosen by a vocation. I stood and looked and looked.
The picture was simplicity itself. The field of the canvas was halved by a pole dividing the image of a ballet rehearsal studio. In the background to the left of the pole were dancers practicing uniform leg lifts along the rail of the studio wall, just as one would expect to see in such a place. They looked exactly like ballerinas, and they also looked like puppets.
In the foreground to the right of the pole was another group of dancers. One was scratching her foot, one was putting on her stockings, one was holding her head in her hands with her mind a million miles away, and one was fanning herself to escape the stifling heat of the studio. And, yet, they composed the dance.
"The real dance is right there!" I thought as I looked at that picture, at those dancers on the right who composed something more vital and humane in their boredom and distraction than the pretty perfectionists on the left. "The real dance is there," I thought, "right in the middle of everything that appears ordinary and tedious. I just need to see it. Oh, I want to see it and be in it."
I knew, because I had been there before, that this picture and this moment was a clue about the plentitude at "zero," that the dance of a truly personal existence begins not when we know all of the "right steps," but when everything ordinary and even tedious is transfigured into gift.
I went back many times to see that picture. I began to see and savor the real dance on that canvas and, slowly, to see and savor it in my life.
Among the ceiling-to-floor shelves of books in my office library - books of theology, art, history, philosophy, and many novels - is a 2-by-3-foot print of that ballet rehearsal. Along with my orange and green Kelly poster, this picture remains among the enduring metronomes of my heart. It is a reminder of the paradoxical fullness that I carry into ordinary days when, quite regularly, things get boring and I feel empty. I look for the dance.