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The Shadow Knows

We tend to design our living spaces with light in mind. It’s only natural: We need to see our environment – and through windows, the outside – to know things like time of day, where that object you don’t want to trip over is, whether that’s a brown shoe or a black, and so on. Light helps. That’s why so many brains have set themselves to the task of creating the best sources of light, natural and artificial. Control of light is a marker of civilization and – even if you hate compact fluorescents – progress.

We think about darkness, too, and not just in ways we can obliterate it with light. During sleep hours, in a movie theater, in moments of middle-of-the-night contemplation, for star-gazing – for most of us, the darker the better.

window well

But, lately, it’s shadows I’ve been considering. Not the necessary and mood-enhancing umbral pools at rooms’ edges, in places where table and task lighting pay no attention. No, it’s now that Spring is in the air, and the sun is higher in the sky and in spots that the  winter sun could only aspire to … it’s now that the light is hitting objects we’ve placed in windows and on doors, and reflecting off things sitting on tables and sills, and so creating designs and patterns, splashes of color and amorphous mandalas all over the walls and floors of lucky rooms. And these shadows, like Plato’s, reveal the world and the shape of structures in it that direct observation never shows us; in fact, the shadows uncover shapes and elements and physical relationships that we are totally unaware of without their assistance.

blinds

Today I have seen the sun behind tilted venetian blinds – bars and taut lines in slashes across the floor; the golden reflected light from a teapot jiggling on the wall; window grates leaving fade-in/fade-out hash marks across plant leaves. And there are some intricate weavings and playful squiggles the origins of which I still can’t determine: the light is coming from somewhere, hitting something, and projecting beauty.

glass

This is art of an improvised nature: light, as if conscious, as if sentient, playing off solids like a percussionist utilizing alleyway trash receptacles as a drum kit. Or like water, finding its way around and through even the smallest cracks and flaws, pouring in.

windowsill

We design our places for light. Perhaps we should just as purposely and consciously design our spaces for the shadows that can be thrown like ideas, sketched like gesture drawings on the canvasses of our rooms … and, just as ethereally, vanish, to return the next time, only different, a new work, a surprising bit of art.

x marks the spot

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Harvesting a Home

fitting d into omEveryone makes moves in their lives, and, in a mobile society, changes in their living accommodations. There was, at one point, a period in my life when I made a series of seven moves in eight years – relocations that made me a citizen of four different states, and they weren’t all contiguous. Ultimately, I ended up buying a house in one of them. Well, not really a house – yet.

It was originally a house (built in 1873) turned into an office building nearly a hundred years later, and then turned back into a house once more – by me. Not your typical house, though. Rather, a strange hybrid of a house and an art piece. Arslocii, indeed. As it stood, it was contained space and not much more. Everything that makes it a house of note now is a result of my direct response to its houselessness and the denuded nature of is office-ness: beige walls, beige floors, fluorescent tubes and stark, detail-less spaces. It was so nondescript that I felt a mandate, an imperative, to take it as far from blandness as was possible. Far over to the other side.

Twenty-seven years later, it is as unique and one-off as the nest of an Australian Bowerbird: an assemblage of found objects meant to attract the eye … in his case, of a mate. My mission was to embellish the place to find its soul, or to restore it. In many respects, it was like building a stage set about houseness, or my dream version of what it could be, put into a tangible form – and on the cheap. It progressed naturally, building one project upon another, and finding my own place in the creation of the form. Whatever complex layering resulted, it reflected the multidimensional layerings of me as an artist and a human being. My house and I are one, difficult to separate. But separate we must.

For, after years of unrest and unsettling neighborhood events, a culmination of disillusionment and dissociation, it became clear that this house is not in a good place – not for me anyway. And that there is another location that can potentially create placeness for now and for the future. And it is hundreds of miles from this house. I have found another house there, in this new place, and it is nothing like the one I helped to create here. Nothing at all.

My dilemma now is in trying to salvage what I worked half a lifetime to build, and to attempt to fit it into and onto another house that is so completely different from this one: sort of made from scratch and customized into an artistic assemblage. The only thing the two might have in common is that the new one, although not stripped of detail, has such indistinct or poorly rendered detail that it, too, is open to interpretation. Plus, this second one is much smaller. In the new structure, the struggle will be one of physical matter more so than conceptual matter; bringing forth a challenge of material limitations rather than cognitive ones.

I liken it to building a first prototype of a robot – a kind of manufactured living thing – an endeavor that is successful, but nearly three decades later, it is sadly stuck in its time and limited by its creation date. In other words, stuck in its place. The urge is to make it again, an updated version using some of the same parts and more hindsight. As a second generation, it will have recognizable traits, but it will move beyond the original exercise, becoming a more integrated whole. That is the hope, anyway, for this experimental house-innards transplant process. As I harvest the very seeds that I planted a generation ago, will both patients survive? Will I? Who will end up the monster, the creator or the created?

The doors, the lighting, some walls and even floors are going to find their way to this new home. It is an organ harvest, house to house; taking the essence away from the original and re-creating a revised version. The staging is terrifying, the removal and replacement are difficult to imagine, let alone orchestrate. I think about it every day, this square peg fitting into a smaller hole. Can a cathedral be scaled down to fit within a parish chapel? I have three or four notebooks filled with measurements, ideas, lists and questions. Can placeness result; that is, true placeness? The best of one combined with a better place could achieve the desired end. Wish me luck.

in the box

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Rock ‘n’ Roll, or Current Resident

radioWe are rocketing up the highway, driving as fast as our voices are loud, singing at the top of our lungs. (Why does no one ever sing at the bottom of their lungs? Don’t they contain air, too?) The songs we are singing are, maybe, ten years old (although, the way time and our minds are racing from us, like a tsunami down a steep slope, the songs might actually be 20 years old … or older), yet we know all the words, or most of the words, or, more accurately, all the vowel sounds – within the span of three minutes, the words “my pledge of love” come out different each time we warble them. We hit the high-note ending, pointing our fingers at whatever audience we think we are performing for (they adore us, they are undressing us with their ears), and then it is over, satisfyingly throat-ravaging, invigorating and youth-ifying.

The deejay intrudes, makes sure to tell us his patently fabricated name, and the call letters of the station, and the information that this obviously Podunk, 4-watt operation emanating from somewhere near a mountain and a swamp is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.” What follows, then, is what begins to turn into about 8 minutes of strung-together 20-second spots, so we hit the scan button – no, no, maybe … no, absolutely not … and then yes, something we know, and we’re off again, howling to the adult-contemporary moon. Then another deejay with the same voice as the previous one, maybe even the same name, and the same speech-pattern and shtick, time, weather, the kind of call-letters that start with B or Q and end in numbers … and he informs us that where he is broadcasting from is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.”  And we wonder: Rock ‘n’ roll has two homes, and in this flyover mudsplat corner of the world?

Over the course of the next hour, and several dozen impatient and severely judgmental excursions up and down the radio dial (it’s actually digital, but, come on, we still “dial” the phone, don’t we?) we receive signals from no less than three other homes of rock ‘n’ roll. We are puzzled: Just how many homes does rock ‘n’ roll have? How many does it need? I mean, OK, one in New York, another in Los Angeles, maybe a place in Nashville, a pad in London and, of course, one in the Caymans to hide the money and be close enough to Turks and Caicos to party with Keith. (And, sorry, Cleveland but, hall of fame or no, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t consider you home. Ever.) But, really: Seven homes within 60 miles in the middle of nowhere? Isn’t that just a little bit strange … and piggy? And whatever happened to rock ‘n’ roll’s tradition? Crashing in other people’s pads, or in the back of cars after a gig where it didn’t get paid, or in a corner of a bus station – when did rock ‘n‘ roll get to be Donald Trump?

All those homes – consider the mortgages. The utility bills (rock ‘n‘ roll tends to leave the lights on at night, because it passes out before it has a chance to flick them off). The  lawn-mowing. The pizza deliveries – you could go broke on the tips alone. Trying to remember all the ZIP codes. Imagine the key ring rock ‘n’ roll has to carry around – you’d need a roadie just to lift it. And when rock ‘n’ roll sings “home, where my love lies waiting silently for me” – well, which home? Which love? Although, if there’s a love lying waiting for rock ‘n’ roll at every one of its homes, one can begin to understand the attraction of getting into that business.

And what does rock ‘n’ roll’s home look like? Split level? A nice two-story Cape? And what do rock ‘n’ roll’s rooms look like? Shag rugs? Posters on the wall? Black light? Is it something cool and clean and classy – someplace with museum-quality furniture that Sting might lay his lute on? Or did Keith Moon get to it, and that cool air we feel on our necks is coming from the broken windows and the punched hole in the wall? We can imagine the bedroom (there’s a love lying silently there … on sheets that haven’t been changed since who knows when), but let‘s not try to picture the bathroom, if you don’t mind. Or the kitchen. Maybe rock ‘n‘ roll’s homes have gardens, and one need not stretch to envision what is growing in it. Or, now that rock ‘n‘ roll has attained the level of filthy rich respectability, maybe some of the homes have a cool Mitt Romney-ish Republican reserve to them, or a Downton Abbey-like elitism that befits an art form approaching its reminiscence-filled dotage.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a lousy host, though. We have invited it into our home for years, but have we once gotten an invitation over to its place? We would be happy to come over to any of the homes, at any time, thrilled to lie waiting for it … but, since we know all the words, or at least the vowel sounds, it wouldn’t be silently.

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A Step Up

When it comes to most houses, the front steps are usually shown the servants’ entrance. Next to what real-estate agents like to call “curb appeal” – the fetching come-hither look of a property that makes you want to stop your car and see more of the place – the most important first-impression portion of any house is its front step … and, yet, it is, in arslocii terms, one of the most terribly overlooked, in all senses of the word.

Money is spent on the front yard, on the path to the front door, on the plantings bordering the front step … but, then, those few flat rises to the door are usually just … flat. After what should be an orchestrated, even ceremonial transition from public space to private, the visitor ends up walking onto and standing around waiting on beige or brown or gray, poured or sliced or milled rectangular solids of no consequence.

What a wasted opportunity to create a place for art, a place that, even before the front door opens, tells the visitor something about the personality of the house and the people who dwell in it. It’s an unfortunate dead zone instead of what could be not only one of the best and first greetings to a home but also an unexpected place for creativity and even wonder – an opportunity to create placeness.

All that most people do is cover the top step with one of a slew of same-old, same-old cookie-cuttered, mass-produced mats – rubber or cocoa fiber or some synthetic approximation of one or the other of them – with pre-fab designs or T-shirty/bumper-sticker-ish verbiage that can be found by the truckloadsful (and the shiploadsful, coming from Taiwan or Sri Lanka): “Welcome” mats that coyly say “Keep Out,” mats with flowery or geometric patterns, mats with representations of the kind of animal one will encounter and surrender his pants cuffs to upon entering the house, or the sort of weapon the householder keeps at hand, or the politics that might explain the weapon, mats that stake a claim to the turf by having owners’ names imprinted on them … this stuff, available in stacks in big-box superstores everywhere is, apparently, what goes for “personalization” these days, as well as a signal of current American standards.

But there is nothing personal about them; in fact, just the opposite: they trumpet conformity, the safety in numbers, the lack of introspection, the absence of a certain kind of pride. More thought goes into the selection of the brass-or-brushed-chrome doorbell and “custom” house numbers than this precious portal plot.

We don’t say that making something of your front step won’t take some effort – it will, if done right. But, you may ask, why do it, if it’s not easy, and so few people will see it? Because, besides creating a special, hip and hidden spot, when done it will not only be something that is by you but also something that is you, something of you that extends beyond the doorjamb to envelop your guests – something that, conceivably, will live on after you, or just until the next owner puts her imprint on the space.

Take the example, just below. Once, unadorned cement steps projected directly out from the front door to the sidewalk. The homeowners, while using privacy and separation from the street as the incentive, reoriented the steps to rise alongside the house. At that point, a simple brick or block wall to enclose those steps would have been the easy, rote thing to do. But with a bit of artistry and vision and a desire to express the individual likes and tastes of the owners, an Art Deco-inspired wall, complete with porthole, aluminum stripes and Streamline tapering became a landmark on the street, a unique, unmatched statement.

 

And then, even more: On a lower landing and on the top front step, on the spot where a typical mat might have been slapped down, there are owner-designed and -installed mosaics – a greeting and a tease of what (and who) await the new arrival. A blending of art and place, of pure function and pure imagination. Arslocii.

Is it asking too much to hope that homeowners will see this “bonus room” as an opportunity for self-expression, even self-revelation, and that they will take a step in the right direction?

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Inside the Box

In passing a number of packing, shipping crates lately that seem to be everywhere – on city streets, in suburban enclaves – it looks as if everyone is relocating. It got me to thinking about boxes.

 

Obviously, Donald Judd was thinking about boxes long before this synapse occurred in my brain. His boxes are definers, forms, containers for space. I think he was prescient and profound about their metaphor for life because our lives are defined and contained by boxes. Cradle to grave.

 

There is the large box we inhabit, whether it be apartment or house or office cubicle. A rectilinear world surrounds us, encases us. If our homes can’t contain all of our belongings, we rent a storage space – another box – unless we have a garage, also a box. If we are moving to a different location, a structure is supplied in the shape of a  pod, referred to as “container-based moving,”  and it is a box for your belongings. Then we move and we find a place to live in that needs remodeling, so we bring in a Dumpster, a huge rectangular box to fill with debris; the unwanted stuff gets boxed and carted away. Often, too, the wanted stuff gets boxed but stays with us – look at all the plastic storage boxes you can buy at big-box stores. Many of our furnishings are, face it, boxes that hold other belongings.

Our cars are just shiny, molded boxes – containers to move us from place to place – also with as many of our belongings as we can carry. Overseas shipping containers are huge boxes that fit on boats, train cars and 18-wheelers – and they float. And, too, smaller boxed items are shipped everyday, everywhere by many competing shipping companies.

Proposal rings come in small boxes, gifts come in boxes of all sizes; England and Canada, among others, celebrate Boxing Day. Books and DVDs come in boxed sets. Box seats are desirable to some theater-goers, if they can afford them. In the sport of boxing, somehow, the square stage of the event is called a ring, but we all know it is really a box. Heck, these days, even liquids come in boxes. A typical day could involve starting off with boxed cereal, working with text boxes and going out to check your post-office box before sending off a box of chocolates to an admiree and grabbing a Bento box for lunch unless you have brought along your own lunch box, then off to the box office to get tickets for a performance.

Why do shoes come in boxes? Mass production, it seems. Funny how they can become stashes for treasured items like seashells and love letters.

If you get on your soapbox, it may elevate you in a crowd but its useful life as a container happened before you came along; unless, of course, you might argue that it helps form and package your thoughts for a public forum. But beware, you might inadvertently open up Pandora’s box, resulting in a crowd-displeasing pummeling by round rather than square objects. Boxed ears can occur.

Ultimately there is the last box. It can be made of wood, metal or cement. It can be lined or bare and it will contain for eternity, only this container must be contained by non-rectangular earth cut into a rectangle to receive the box. A fitting end for a square peg.

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Place Settings

In pondering many of life’s unanswerables, the one that keeps goading me, keeps unsettling me is the one about being in the right place. There are so many variables about where one is and why: were you born there; did you find an employment that brought you there; is your family network close by or, intentionally, not; did you arrive by way of a breakdown or breakup and never left; did you connect with someone and stayed; were you on a quest and, partially or wholly satisfied, remained; were you proactive or did you go with the flow or was it merely inertia? And do you ever think about these things or is it just a given, like the way you look or the sun setting westward?

If so, did you build a life, a life that can sustain you for the rest of it? I mean, besides travel, are you completely content with your locale? Is it an easy, comfortable place to be, or a stimulating one, or is it intolerable? Or is it just here. And now. And that’s all there is. When it comes time to vacate this place, will you do so because of a desire for a particular climate, proximity to slot machines, low taxes, nearness of family, cultural benefits, medical facilities, or a beautiful environment; how about a like-minded community? Or will you be carried out in a box? Will you even have a choice?

It is a puzzle: should I stay or should I go? Can one place be suitable for a lifetime, for a person’s changing needs or desires? I remember my father, who was born, bred, schooled and wed, then fathered, worked, lived and died within about a three-mile radius. He did some traveling, but he told me that there was only one other place besides home that he would have ever considered living – Washington, DC. I found that peculiar, since to me it has felt like a static open-air museum, or mausoleum, with a dash of the kind of yawn-inducing ambience of a state capitol. I’ll grant that some of the architecture is prettier than the average state seat, but the oppressive, imposed grandeur and order is reminiscent of right-wing police states and L’Enfant’s design penchant for creating space for marching hoards. Well, my dad was Prussian/German. The weird thing was that, during his funeral, we caravanned from parlor to cemetery – a distance of 2.8 miles – and passed en route every touchstone of his life. It was a remarkable tribute. Not a planned one; it just so happened that living or dead, this was the road he traveled. It was a neat, nearly straight south-north line from cradle to grave.

I have had, up to this point, more of a zigzag approach. I have now lived about as long in one place not of my birth as I did in my hometown, with multiple stops in between, mostly back and forth in an east-west orientation. As I consider the future, should there be one, I wonder: Is this still the place for it? Could there be a better place to live that is more attuned to the person I am now as opposed to the person I was a quarter century ago? I am a firm believer in there being many lifetimes in a lifetime. What should the next one be? And where should it be?

For me, there has never been an option of returning to the source – it is from whence I came, not where I want to be. That would be like trying to relive the past, and a past is not what I seek. It is the moving forward that beckons. And, too, I can safely eliminate Washington as a possibility. But where? I have been to many compelling places, largely cities, but it is not the city life I am craving now. I look at rural areas, and there is beauty in the land, but it might be isolating and lonely. What’s left is a small town. I think I have often imagined living in a village but not one with a cannon in the center square and, similarly, not one where the sense of self is based on some event that happened three centuries ago – meaning that the town and its identity do not dwell in the past. History is fine, but not as a way of life.

So the quest is to find a place, one that others with equal values have found before and have sustained or built upon, sharing the same interest in moving forward and making the most of every day, being creative and celebrating individuality and a passion for life, as opposed to sleepwalking through it. Where is such a place?

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Where There’s a Will

If you happen to love the place you live in – truly love it, not simply appreciate its benefits and features – then there is no place in the world that has more placeness, no convergence of dimensions that is more “you”: it defines you, you define it; you change it, it changes you; you know it, it “knows” you. This place – your home – is more than just a comfy spot, or a cozy space, but an external expression of you, the oversized physical manifestation of your wants and wishes, your past and present – it is the shell for which you are the seed. It is the strands of your own double helix unraveled then knitted around you, for warmth, and protection, and identity. It is the thing we humans most want – that place that, when you go there, it not only has to take you in, it can think of no lovelier thing to do.

This musing about the placeness that resonates in the places we live in is no stranger to arslocii discussions – it is also the core pondering point of a book we are fitfully working on about our own house. But it all, so to speak, comes home to roost because of two things: one, that we are working on our wills, and, two, because of a movie that we just saw.

Writing a will is no easy thing: it is that activity in which profundity and pettiness butt heads in the biggest, ugliest scrum ever fielded. Who should get that lamp, that sculpture? How much money should we leave to that relative, that friend, that organization? And, who not to? Who should be rewarded – and who screwed? And to what degree? (It is, or can be, a tawdry exercise, but concentrating on the details of Mammon can help to take your eye off the ball that is whizzing straight for your noggin: that this is all about the end of you, and that portion of existence that follows in which you have been written out of the script.)

And, then, there’s the house. Sell it? Bequeath it? If you love it, if you truly love it, if it is for you the greatest repository of placeness – that is, that place that echoes in you, and is the echo of you – then, what is best? And if you have taken it from nothing, and, over the years, turned it into something special and personal and expressive of you – then what? And this is where profundity and pettiness are joined onstage by grandiosity. The alterations made in the house, the furniture and collectibles placed just so, the art both purchased and made by the inhabitants (one of them, anyway) and which have provided the foundation for what you consider to be the best possible home for you – well, you begin to believe that nothing must happen to this Camelot of the mind and spirit and sensibilities. You begin to believe that it must be retained, in its totality, in its current form, no hair out of place, and preserved, because the world would be diminished by its passing (as much or more as by yours). As you ponder the power and finality of the will you are writing, you might even wonder, momentarily, grandiosely, if there might not be a way to save it, to keep it as is, in amber – say, create a foundation to fund its existence in perpetuity, or donate it to a museum or arts organization with the proviso that it live on in current form, or maybe, somehow, in the remaining time left to you on this Earth you will in some way become so famous or do something so momentous that society will honor you by taking the place that is imbued with your placeness and deem it a national treasure. Across such fields of folly do thoughts scamper when one loves, truly loves, one’s place of personal placeness – the home that defines.

Such thoughts cross minds, especially when dovetailed with the shivery fear that everything that we have done here that matters, once we step away, will be undone, that the Goths will storm our (custom-made) gates laden with granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances and framed “art” bought to complement the upholstery. Are we being disgustingly snobbish? Absolutely. But this is, after all, our sine qua non place, where the ghosts that matter to us reside and, for us, always will.

And, then, during a break in our will-writing, we watched “Summer Hours” (“L’heure d’été”), a beautiful, insightful, breathtakingly understated French film by Olivier Assayas about the dismantling of a place and, in the act of it, the dismantling of the lies and secrets of a life, the tensions and distances of a family, and the understanding of the value of possessions. It was serendipitous that we watched this. It was important that we did.

In the movie, a family has come together – a not-common event for them – in a luminous and lushly gardened French country estate to celebrate the 75th birthday of the matriarch. It is a place not only of elegance and serenity, but also one of palpable placeness, the site of much of the family’s history, and the repository of not just memories but of a fabulous art collection. It was here that a much-loved (in all ways, we are to learn) uncle, himself a renowned artist, lived and worked and surrounded himself with works by famed creators – Josef Hoffmann, Corot, Redon, Degas, Louis Majorelle – that are now worth bushelsful of Euros.

During the party, the object of the celebration pulls aside her eldest son – and the only one who still lives in France – and begins to list for him all the things that need to be taken care of, including the disposition and dispersal of the paintings and sculpture, as well as the house and the property itself, when she dies. He, wanting to avoid the conversation entirely while also seeing himself (or having been nurtured to see himself) as the person responsible for the perpetuation of the family legacy, argues that everything, as is must remain, intact, even if the house is to be used only a few times a year; it must be not just a monument but an unchanging conduit to the family’s heritage, a place that will pass on to the present generation’s children, and to theirs, and on. To which his mother replies that his children and future generations will have “better things to do than deal with bric-a-brac from another era” – the “residue,” she calls it. “It’s sad,” she goes on, “but that’s life. … A lot of things will be leaving with me. Memories, secrets, stories that interest no one anymore.” She tells her son that there is “no need to become keepers of the tomb.” And she says, “After me, it’s another story.”

Yes, exactly. As we write our wills, and look around us, and feel so at one with the home we love, truly love, we realize that some spots have a placeness that is so inherent to them that time does not dilute it, while others are founded in the hearts and minds of those that dwell in them now. This house of ours has placeness … for us, and, perhaps, for a few of those who know and love us and have been here to experience it. But we, and they, and this will pass. As we have seen in the writing of the book about our house, it is not ours, really – we are merely the current tenants in a blink in the continuum, clutching the baton passed to us and necessarily, if reluctantly, moving our arms forward to pass it on. The next person will change the house to suit her, as we have done to suit us. And, soon enough, there will be little left of what we did, and were. It will be somebody else’s place, somebody else’s time – after us, another story. And what we did here, ultimately, was to keep it going, with the hope that love, like cooking aromas, might permeate the walls, and remain.

It’s sad, but that’s life.

 

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