Monthly Archives: March 2011

Coming to Our Sinensis

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m an addict. Probably for about fifteen years now. My taste has gone from the milder form to more of a mid-range, but never to the really heavy stuff. Asians have been indulging for millennia, centuries before the common era. Burma and China used it first as a medicinal herb, India soon after and, later, it was introduced in Japan by Buddhists as an aid to wakeful meditation.

My addiction is to a single plant, Camellia sinensis. Tea. Camellia plants are magnificent but the heady potion that results from steeping the leaves in hot (but not too hot) water is what you might refer to as liquid moonlight. I say moon rather than sun because, despite the golden quality, tea has very soft edges, a luminescence more so than a glare, reflectiveness as opposed to directness. Its resonances are those of savoring rather than scarfing, calm instead of incitement, uplift and not submergence.

In Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea, published in 1906, he introduces the concept of Teaism. Teaism, he states, has influenced the whole of Japanese culture as a religion of aestheticism, “a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence…. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.” One hundred years later, Japan needs Teaism now in the wake of its present calamities; maybe that is one explanation for the culture’s exemplary behavior in the midst of overwhelming upheaval.

One of the beauties of tea is its mystery. All forms of tea are harvested from one plant; it is the stage of maturity at harvest, the fermentation process and the roasting that create either white, green, oolong or black teas – each starting out the same and ending up unique. Every picking (even if separate pickings happen from the same plants on the same day) will be different. A tea picked early in the morning will often produce a different-quality tea than leaves picked just before noon, so a tea farmer can harvest two distinct teas for different market consumption in a single day. The names of teas confuse and mystify their origins but are based on the mixed complexities of geography, climate, botany, grading, appearance, processing, biochemistry and the human hand: all coming together to make each and every batch of tea sui generis.

Those are its practical mysteries, and then there are the sensual ones: the way tea feels warm like a soothing bath in your cup, held up with a faint mist on your face; its color varying from moss green to yellow gold to amber depending on your selected variety; the earthy and ethereal smell of its plant compounds; the sensation of its bitterness/sweetness in your mouth; the way it energizes and refreshes but not instantly – its ebb and flow, much like other natural processes. Tea’s power is in its restraint as much as it is in its urging. It is nearly a living being and you, the partaker, are having a meaningful conversation with it. You are having tea with it.

The place where we obtain our tea adds to its mystique: a 19th-century narrow shop with high, decorative ceilings and top-to-bottom dark wooden shelves, large tins resembling old milk cans filling every cubbyhole of space and holding an array of cultural offerings from those regions, as with wine-growing, where mountains and sun-filled days/cool nights make things grow in a special, almost magical way. Our ounces of leaf matter are weighed on an old balance scale – kind of completing the sense that we might be in Haight Ashbury in the sixties (however, the bags are quite different and are labelled with the name of each tea), or transported to Victorian London in a quaint shop in Neal’s Yard. There is a direct connection with the ancients in the process of the shop owner inviting us to smell the contents of the tins – lovely barrages of earthy tones, floral essences, hints of mountain air, each unique and heady. Your nose knows. The textures and shapes are so varied, some are little knotted balls of leaf matter, others are slender flat leaves, some even resemble dried moss or seaweed; they are curled, folded, powdered, chopped, rolled – each has its own form, fragrance, taste. The differences derived from a single plant species are astonishing. From a simple bush, such complexity. Much like life.

There is a placeness to tea, more so than most other comestibles. It can be silently meditative, it can be social in its shared experience and it can make you part of a continuum in meaningful customs and traditions. It is such an adaptable place-maker because of its portability and requirements of simple implements for brewing. But the Japanese have perfected sites for it: tea houses. These beautiful, simple structures are, in a sense, altars to tea, but with an Asian component of humbleness. Tea houses are full of the stuff of Teaism: aesthetic surroundings with a dash of imperfection to keep us grounded – and all for the enjoyment of a steeped leaf. It is understandable how tea has been revered in many cultures, even developed into a ceremonial ritual much like a religious rite. The beauty, harmony and tranquility that emanates from this plant and its ability to create an atmosphere of opening one’s senses to the offerings of nature is very much in keeping with arslocii. No wonder we drink so much tea.


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In Stone

“In the beginning there was the word.” So it says in John 1:1. (Which, for the non-scientific/rational-minded among us, makes a smidgen more sense than Genesis’ “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth,” because, obviously, that wasn’t the beginning, since there was a god already in place to do the creating, therefore necessitating an even earlier beginning when this god entity turned up. Of course, if you listen to others, who can be found hanging out and furtively smoking on the corner of Physics and Theology, there was no beginning, there is no end, no edge, or borders – the nothingness in which the universe expands always was, always will be, and goes on forever. having no physical or existential limits. If, of course, there is even such a thing as existence. Be still, my Earthbound, finite mind.)

We held my mother’s unveiling a week ago. For those out of that particular loop: In Jewish tradition, sometime between about six months and a year after a person’s death the family is called back to the grave; in the interim, the tombstone has been completed, and, for this occasion, it is covered with a cloth that is, at the end of a brief ceremony, torn off or in some way removed, to reveal – or “unveil” – the finished monument. It’s intended to be a cathartic event, providing, in today’s touchy-feely parlance, closure. (As if, with the death of a loved one, there can be such a thing, until, of course, you come to a close.)

The tombstone in question here has been in place since 1993, when my father died. His name and dates are on one side of the stone, and for all those years my mother’s side was blank, absent only a “Coming Soon – Watch this Location” sign. Likewise, and  strangely: Although the ground in front of the stone looked exactly the same whether on my father’s side or my mother’s, his had a placeness – not only because we knew that he was buried there (and that we humans are squeamish about stepping on graves), which posits a certain “sacred” authority to a patch of ground, but also because the stone had his name on it. Words defined the space; where his name on the stone ended was, in our minds, the dividing line between holy ground and just turf. We can’t imagine, really, the casket below (or, perhaps, don’t want to), but his name and accompanying words and numbers give the place a space, a solidity, even some sort of air rights. The half of the plot that would someday hold my mother’s remains was simply the place we stood on to look at my father’s half – like standing in front of a vacant store: no “there” there …until a sign goes up announcing the new tenant.

Now, my mother is there, and, when we removed that gauzy fabric, so was her name, chiseled in stone. And that made all the difference. Until then, she wasn’t there; once the words were visible, she was. Now her patch of ground was not what it had been – now, with the presence of her name and dates, it had power. In an out-of-sight-out-of-mind world, she is now officially, authoritatively, in sight, and that acknowledged “thereness” – in a bland, modern cemetery of such little “thereness” – is a strong placeness with emotional impact. The words make it – her death, her absence – real. It happened. It is final. Not the cemetery setting, not the slightly mounded earth, but those letters etched in that stone. The truth is there.

In the end there are the words. That’s all there is and, maybe, all there ever was.


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The Light Fantastic

My whole life I have been drawn to light. Not like a moth is, for celestial navigation (although I am a moon-watcher), but I am definitely positively phototactic. Some of my least-favorite fellow creatures are negatively phototactic; so, given the choice between light and dark, I will always go with light.

Drawn as I am to glowing things, I’ve become aware of the varied qualities of light. Natural light is best because of its color range. And there are those special lighting effects that the sun can produce: the translucent backlighting of leaves – both spring and fall foliage have their unique attributes; the glint of light on stone revealing its crystalline or mica structures; reflections and movement on a water’s surface, and sometimes down into its depths; rays breaking through cloud curtains and extending like searchlights onto the earth; glistening silica particles sparkling in sand or grass; a rainbow, a miraculous fracturing of light; the orange fanfare of the sun’s rising and setting; the moon’s shine at night; a stream of light with its thousands of floating particles, like a glimpse into the beginnings of life itself; the Northern Lights, which I must someday see; and even something as mundane as the warm glow cast on a telephone pole.

Not sun-related, but light-significant, too, are: lightning, a powerful emanation of the original electric light; fireflies and their glowing signals, like tiny lighthouses of the sky; candle flames, doing their own peculiar dance of life; the color and warmth of a full-blown fire, and too, the glowing red embers that fight for survival as it fades.

These very qualities of light can create placeness in nature, a symbiotic alteration of site or space that is sometimes momentary. But if you are there to witness it or experience it, a moment may be all that’s required. It must be this sensory phenomenon that induces artists to try to recreate it or capture it in some way. Certain artists work with artificial light, attempting to mimic the effects of natural light. Dan Flavin used industrial fluorescent tubes, which to me are the anti-light, but painted them and clustered them so that the colors bleed and interact much in the same way that the color spectrum does. (See The Dan Flavin Institute entry on our arslocii website.) Or there is Olafur Eliasson, whose theories are made manifest by hugely proportioned installations designed to alter or challenge the viewer’s perceptions. Science aside, I viewed his piece, “Your Color Memory,” at Arcadia University in 2006. Once you entered the large rotunda built inside a cavernous building, you were enveloped in light. Not static light, but rather light in constant flux, changing color, density and brightness. Whereas Flavin’s piece was like entering a rainbow, this one was akin to walking through the Northern Lights (I imagine). There was nothing in this space except light, and it had such presence, such placeness. It was like a full-body treatment for SAD; my cone photoreceptors were in overdrive, and it lifted my mood as if some sort of laughing gas was being pumped in through the heating ducts.

Other artists try to capture natural light. James Turrell comes to mind, having started his career using artificial light inside to create an altered sense of interior space. Then he started opening up holes to the sky to work with sunlight and star-viewing. In his largest project, Roden Crater, which is ongoing for more than thirty years, he is turning a meteor crater into a celestial observatory, pulling the light of both day and night through an elliptical occulus for its effects within the crater’s space and on the viewer, and causing it to have a physicality. And Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field”: a flat expanse of upright steel rods that attract lightning down to the high desert ground, its effect likened to, once again, the Northern Lights. The regularity and density of the metal receptors create the possibility of the electrical energy bouncing off the rods as in a pinball game as it tilts with each attraction.

Each of these artists is a place-maker, using light, just as our eyes do, to create shape, color, space, sensory experience, a physical presence, out of thin air. It is the ultimate in placeness, turning something immaterial into something “real.” There is a kind of alchemy in this process, and it is totally natural. It is said that water is the source of life itself, but for me, it is light – whether in its natural creations or the human-made ones. Without light, there would be nothingness.


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Seeing Spots

We met in the Catskills, and arranged to meet again a few days later, in New York City. I think we both knew that something very interesting was bubbling between us, and so quickly, too. (And now, together 35 years, it’s clear that we were pretty much right on the money about it.) We took a walk, a long one, all over the East Side of midtown (as deserted as Manhattan ever gets in the late-night hours), winding our way up and down the number streets, click-clacking through an eerily unpopulated Grand Central and onto Park Avenue, where we found a low wall to sit on in front of a tall building we didn’t pay much attention to. As water jets burbled and splashed into a wide pool behind us, and as we occasionally broke our gazes at each other to focus aimlessly at another meaningless tall building catercorner from us, we talked and talked, and talked some more, exchanging information and intimacies, sharing secrets to see if the other would be shocked by the revelations, and if they would be deal-breakers. We were testing the waters by throwing boulders into them. By night’s end, we had two things: a very real and certain relationship that’s more than we ever could have imagined … and we had a spot. “Our spot.” In our minds, the place where it all began for real – a low wall along a big street in the middle of New York.

For years afterwards, and periodically more recently, when we’ve been in New York we’ve stopped by “our spot,” for old times’ sake, to try to feel again that wonder of the first time. And we usually do. That’s what “spots” are for: to act as touchstones to our past, to encourage our hearts to re-experience a thrill or a defining time or that moment that changed a lot, or everything. Like a tune that becomes “our song,” a spot brings back a vivid “then,” even complete with the echoes of the sounds and the waftings of the smells, and the perhaps-idealized memory of the words spoken, and of that face. Sometimes your “spot” has become so iconic and totemic in your life, what happened there is, in your mind, a sort of tableau or stage set, and you have an out-of-body experience, seeing yourself, as from a distance, as part of the display, one of the mannequins, a member of the cast – you, but apart from yourself. Our “spots” have a placeness so thick, we continue to “see” what happened there even when the “spot” has been altered, even destroyed. In the art of living, it is a placeness that, once lived, never dies. It is as close to having an encounter with ghosts as one is likely to have. And these “spots” are so strong, so integral to the psychological infrastructure upon which who we are is built, that just to be at a “spot,” even a changed or missing one, can make us cry or laugh, regret, shiver … wonder.

It is an amazing thing about us humans: that we seem to have a need to imbue locations connected with seminal events with a kind of secular holiness to potent that we are moved to see visions, not of a god but of ourselves when we thought that we were gods, or others were devils. So immensely enthralling are these, our “spots,” that it is hard to believe that others walk past them or drive by them or even pause at them, yet do not perceive the power there, the emotion, and do not see the spectral remnants of us there, then, played in a loop for all time. How can they not see that? It’s there.

So – that low wall, on Park Avenue, on a warm night, with nary another soul in sight – “our spot.” But here’s the funny thing, the little kicker to this tale: Those few square feet of wall, and the polished-brass hydrants that stick out from it where our dangling feet rested – that is our shrine, the Mecca of our pilgrimages … and all the time we didn’t know or realize or care that, on that wall, at what would become “our spot,” our backs were turned to that tall building … which happened to be the Mies van der Rohe / Philip Johnson Seagram Building, one of the most significant in all of New York. The water feature and the wide plaza – among the most stunning and influential setbacks in all of New York architecture – should have been the giveaway. And that tall building across the wide, divided Park Avenue, catercorner from us – the one that we would flick a look at from time to time? Gordon Bunshaft’s equally important Lever House. Both buildings great and vital contributors to the Modernist movement, New York’s skyline treasures and the general 20th-century boogie-woogie.

But, you can have them – they can crumble and fall, or get a new skin, or bay windows, or ground-to-roof neon-advertising billboards. So what? In the history of architecture, they have a place. But they are nothing to “our spot.” Mere backdrops to it. When we see them, we see textbooks; when we see “our spot,” we see us. And that’s where true placeness lies.


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My Mother the TV Set

Knowing that it is a strange comparative, between a mother and a television set, there are parallels that cannot go unnoticed. My mother was a modern woman, modern for her thinking more often than her actions, however always open to new ideas and even technologies. She balanced on a beam somewhere in a limbo of mid-generations, teetering between the gravitational pull of her encouraging offspring and her pooh-poohing spouse, constantly in danger of giving too much weight to one or the other. Unlike so many of her peers, she found meaningful uses for vcrs, cordless phones, computers, and larger and larger tv screens – adopting some of these items before her own children did.

One of these modern conveniences appeared soon after my father’s death: a 1993, large-screen (41”), rear-projection television, Sony model KP-41EXR96. In her mind this was the best investment she ever made, and she knew full well that my father would never have allowed such an extravagance. One might argue that it was a necessity of sorts because her eyesight had worsened with age, but she loved movies, and the idea of watching them at home on what was then the largest piece of real estate available to the home-viewer was just the ticket, as well as the price of admission.

Some of us worried that it was an addiction, in a sense. She positioned chairs in front of it, then later beds – her TV room started to resemble an opium den. Any visitors would be lured to the big screen, first, as a kind of demonstration of its beauty, then to watch with her (again) the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. It is incalculable how many times she viewed that movie; alone, with others, maybe again in her dreams. If there had been other cult followers with her, they would have recited the dialogue in unison as a mantra. That TV delivered to her the romantic illusion that she so craved, over and over, and in nearly life-size scale. Not far behind, both of her children, individually, purchased their own rear-projection big screens. To one of us, she would claim that the other one’s selection never lived up to her own; in a kind of Goldilocks moment, she would compare the size or clarity, and the others would fail in every measure. She loved her set.

After her debilitating stroke, life-changing therapy and relocation, I think that one of her major concerns was reuniting with her TV. Along with other belongings, we moved its then eight-year-old hulking carcass nearly six hundred miles, placing it as her hearth in her new smaller living room, and building the room around it. We offered to replace it with a newer, lighter and even bigger set, but she was a one-set woman. In some way the set must have represented many things: a link with her more normal past self; a lingering thumbed-nose to my father; a retained sense of having found the right one – the superior-to-all-others TV, still, at eight years old; and a comfortable and friendly face in her new environment.

The TV set outlived her, and we were faced with what to do with it. At one point, it developed a high-pitched buzz, but otherwise it worked. We had it fixed and took it to our home, along with other belongings of hers – after all, she loved it so. It wasn’t so much that we wanted it as that we felt we had to keep her memory alive with it, it had been such a cherished object. It weighed a ton, and it was so large that most of our rooms couldn’t accommodate it, but it ended up in our bedroom – and it gives one pause to think that either it had developed a mind of its own or she had willed it to be so.

It has been eight years since her death and, now, in the past several months, there are death rattles in the set. First, there was a strange color separation, giving me acid flashbacks, in which every image had an aura – every person, every chair, every single thing in the picture oddly illuminated in tripartite rainbow array. I continued to watch it, learning how to read it, refracted. I think it was challenging me in some way. It made me think of my mother’s stroke and how her “set” was having the same misfiring of its own wiring, sending the wrong signals. And just as suddenly as that affectation appeared, it disappeared, some sort of self-healing of its internal parts. The high-pitched buzz returned, then left as well. Was my mom trying to communicate to me through this contraption?

About the time when we said, well, it’s finally over and we will find a place to recycle it, the picture improved – possibly to a clarity it never before had attained. Why would we consider pulling the plug? But now, as the thing heats up, there is a new kind of light show in which the screen goes black and three wavy lines, red, blue, green, snake around the empty picture field. It reminds us of an EKG for an alien species, and we are waiting for it to flatline. Sometimes during these episodes, almost like seizures, the TV set turns itself off. We wait a few minutes and turn it back on and it has a good picture. Its remote control no longer controls the power in either direction but it still has a working volume and mute. My mom would be tickled about that, since she used both with a vengeance.

So we wait and hope, in a way as with my mother. We can’t end the relationship, so we wait for it to happen naturally. Who knows: Maybe my mom’s spirit is somewhere in that TV set. Maybe she is controlling the volume and picture. I hope so.


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