Russian nesting dolls

This month at the Newton Free Library, there is an exhibit of Russian matryoshka dolls in three glass cases in the main entrance hall. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the monthly displays in these cases: they’re simply something I pass on my way to pick-up or drop-off books. But because I know J admires Russian nesting dolls, I stopped long enough to snap a few photos, the way you do when you see something you know a loved one would love.

Russian leaders nesting dolls

What initially caught my eye was a medium-sized Mikhail Gorbachev doll that contains within him his Soviet-era predecessors. I had to snap a photo to share with J because I knew that years ago during a business trip to Prague, J bought a large Boris Yeltsin that contains within him the same sequence of Russian leaders all the way back to the tzars. Although I’m no expert when it comes to Russian history or Russian nesting dolls, I recognize the zeal in J’s voice when he recites the names of Russian leaders like a litany, the smallest tzar not much larger than a grain of rice.

Russian nesting dolls

J is a connoisseur of matryoshka dolls, but I’m just a newbie, drawn to pay attention to something simply because someone I love is an admirer. I suppose this is how parents become well-versed in dinosaurs, Legos, or anything else their children love obsessively. I have to admire a collector’s zeal, even if I know little about his or her collection. When it comes to Russian matryoshka dolls, I admire the meticulous way one figure fits into another, a single doll containing an entire collection, each individual packed with its predecessors like a person carrying his own history.

Diaphanous

Yesterday J and I went downtown to see Janet Echelman’s aerial sculpture “As If It Were Already Here,” which was unveiled (or, more accurately, installed) over a segment of the Rose Kennedy Greenway back in May. I say the sculpture was “installed” rather than “unveiled” because the piece itself is like a veil, or a net, or a web: a semi-translucent, windblown shroud that spans a section of park that used to be an ugly elevated highway.

From afar

“As If It Were Already Here” (which J and I informally dubbed The Webby Thing for lack of a better way to describe its shape and appearance) billows in the wind and invariably draws attention to the sky and skyline. Yesterday was a beautifully sunny day, and folks were lounging on Adirondack chairs and hammocks on the Greenway grass: what better way to spend a weekday lunch hour or coffee break?

Curling

A steady stream of passersby paused to take cellphone snapshots of The Webby Thing, which has a website mapping its Instagram images. Although I too took a dozen or so shots, The Webby Thing was difficult to photograph, as diaphanous things often are. Photos don’t portray the sheer size of the thing, which spans a city block and stretches from skyscrapers on one side of the now-buried highway to another. In some shots, you can see color stretched like a veil across the sky, but from other angles all you see are spiderweb-like strings.

Wispy webs

“As If It Were Already Here” was installed in May, in an operation that entailed a cadre of coordinated cranes. (Click here for a time-lapse video of its installation.) Although the piece looks flimsy, according to the artist’s website it contains over 100 miles of twine, has over half a million knots, and weighs approximately one ton. Support cables are bolted to nearby buildings, and yesterday workers were re-tensioning its tethers, making sure the web was securely anchored.

Adjustments

The Webby Thing is mirrored in the many windows of surrounding skyscrapers, making me wonder what kind of view neighboring office-workers and hotel guests have of a gossamer ghost that floats like a giant jellyfish over passing pedestrians.

Flag with reflections

Raindrops on hydrangea

This weekend I went to see “Inside Out,” Pixar’s new animated movie about the five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) that live inside an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. I’d been reduced to a sobbing, sopping mess during the first five minutes of “Up,” which I hadn’t expected to be a tear-jerker, so I arrived at “Inside Out” with a packet of tissues, fully prepared to weep. And although I did sniffle and get misty-eyed during several scenes, what surprised me about “Inside Out” was how I reacted to the Riley’s predominant emotion, “Joy.”

Raindrops on hydrangea

Not long into the movie, I grew annoyed with Joy, voiced by an ever-enthusiastic Amy Poehler. There is a lot to love about Joy: she’s bright and bright-eyed, friendly and inquisitive, and almost pathologically positive. Poehler is a graduate of Boston College, and when I taught at BC, I was almost alarmed at how upbeat and earnest the students there were. When I taught at BC, I found it disconcerting that my students weren’t nearly as sarcastic and smart-assed as I am, so going into “Inside Out,” I was prepared to prefer the wry irony of Mindy Kaling’s Disgust and the unbridled rage of Lewis Black’s Anger. Disgust and Anger I can understand, but Joy is elusive.

Raindrops on hydrangea

Joy is, well, a joy to be with when things are going well, as they largely do for the first ten years of Riley’s life, when she is an energetic, cherished child living in Minnesota. But when Riley’s family relocates to San Francisco, Joy’s perpetual perkiness seems increasingly irrelevant. It’s not that Riley can’t be happy in San Francisco: Joy is still Joy, and the basic emotional makeup of Riley’s psyche remains unchanged. It’s more a matter of balance. In order to maintain control over Riley’s outlook, Joy kicks her hyperactive happiness into overdrive, banishing Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) to a library of user manuals where she is instructed to read up on mental maintenance like a child sentenced to sit in a corner.

Raindrops on hydrangea

But as anyone acquainted with their own blue moods would know, Sadness cannot be contained, bursting forth spontaneously and threatening to (literally) color Riley’s childhood memories. Isn’t that exactly how it goes? When you’re blue, it feels like everything you do, ever have done, and ever will do will be blue, too. When you’re feeling down, there is nothing more maddening than Joy with her upbeat insistence to look on the bright side.

Raindrops on hydrangea

But despite Joy’s well-intentioned pep talks, ultimately it is Sadness–a droopy blue blob in owlish spectacles and a dowdy turtleneck–who is the compassionate one, able to listen when a friend (imaginary or otherwise) has a moment of despair. Whereas Joy works herself into a frenzy trying to keep Riley happy, Sadness simply reflects reality without judgement: sometimes, things make us sad. Joy is lighthearted and perpetually young, but Sadness is weighted with a wisdom beyond her years. Whereas Joy is the queen of unsolicited advice, Sadness simply sits alongside, a blue blob whose very shape suggests support.

Raindrops on hydrangea

I find it telling that when we see inside Riley’s mother’s mind, her panel of emotions is led not by Joy but by Sadness. (The emotions in Riley’s father’s head, on the other hand, answer to Anger when they aren’t all daydreaming about hockey games.) Although a child’s formative years might (we hope) be predominantly happy ones, a mother’s heart is essentially sorrowful, ever attuned to the suffering of her own or other’s children. Whereas Riley’s emotions are widely and radically different, the emotions in Riley’s mother’s head have settled into a stable similarity, working together rather than at cross purposes.

This is, ultimately, what Riley to must learn at the edge of adulthood. Ultimately Sadness should never be banished; instead, she is intended to work hand-in-hand with Joy.

The Wall at Central Square

A quick search of my blog archives reveals I often get the blog blahs–that is, an inert sense of not having anything to say or share–in August, but this year I seem to be ahead of schedule. In the past, I’ve learned that simply showing up in the midst of a dry spell can sometimes lead to the unexpected, but this time around, the blog blahs feel like a bad case of “been there, done that.”

This time around, even my morning journal pages feel sluggish and repetitive, with me repeating a seemingly endless list of undone tasks and to-dos: a litany of “shoulds” and “gottas.” When you’re in the midst of the blog blahs, you read old blog posts and journal entries with a sense of amazement and even jealousy: Who was I when I had the time and inspiration to write long and insightful essays? At the moment, saying anything profound or even positive seems ambitious and unattainable.

But, I’ve been writing (and blogging) long enough to know that even the worst case of blog blahs eventually passes: you just have to wait it out. And the best way of waiting, of course, is to keep writing, even if what you’re writing seems inane, insipid, and uninspired. Are to-do lists and whining rants fun to read? No, which is why I write them in my journal and mercifully don’t share them here. Are to-do lists and whining rants fun to write? No, but sometimes you have to flush out the gunk that’s causing your creative clog.

So, here is a post that feels both clogged and gunky: an attempt to shake off the blahs by posting something, anything. I remind myself of something Gary Snyder said when I saw him speak back in 2010: “You never know if you’re going to write another good poem.” When you’re in the midst of the blog blahs, you begin to wonder if you’re ever going to write another decent blog post, another decent journal entry, or another decent anything, but the only way out of that slump is to write your way out.

Flickr is currently down, so I’m posting this entry as-is, with only one accompanying photo. I don’t know what it is that “Everybody Knows,” so I’ll leave that to you to figure out.

Hokusai

Whenever J and I go to the Museum of Fine Arts, I find myself spending almost as much time looking at other museum patrons as I do looking at the art itself. I find it fascinating to watch how people interact with art: how much time do they spend looking at an individual work, or how much time do they spend fiddling with the buttons on their audio guide? Do they like to gaze at something thoughtfully from afar, do they sit and consider an entire roomful of art in a single glance, or do they go straight up to a piece and snap a picture before moving on?

Hokusai

I guess you could say I appreciate art appreciators. I find myself wondering what people are thinking as they silently stare at a given work: do they like it? Are they puzzled by it? Do they find it intriguing without quite knowing what about it intrigues them?

Hokusai

Much of my own art appreciation happens on a nonverbal level–there are works I simply like without being able to explain why I like them–so I often wonder whether others interact with art in a similar way, wandering through the galleries in search of something that Simply Speaks to them, regardless of whether it’s a renowned or well-known work.

Hokusai

In any given exhibition, there’s always one or two works that draw a crowd, either because they’re highlighted by the curators as being Important or because they’re just pretty to look at.

Hokusai

But what intrigues me most of all are the quiet, overlooked corners where you’ll sometimes find a lone soul having a private moment with a particular work. What is happening in the mind of a lone observer standing face-to-face with a centuries-old masterpiece? Is it some sort of communion where the artist’s vision reaches beyond the frame, spanning the centuries to trigger a response in a person he could have never known?

Hokusai

Click here to see more photos from Hokusai, which is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through August 9th.

Facing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between words and images. I share a lot of words and photos here on my blog, and I produce a lot of words and images that never get posted here. I consider myself a writer who also takes pictures, the “taking pictures” always taking second place to the “writing.” But although I consider myself more a shutterbug than a serious photographer, I have to admit how reliant upon images my writing has become. Although I certainly can describe things without an accompanying photo to illustrate, whenever I find myself at a loss for words, it’s often because I haven’t been looking at (or photographing) much.

Overhead

I’m coming to realize that looking at things–particularly new or interesting things–is an important part of my composition process, even if what I’m writing has nothing to do with what I’ve been looking at. I guess you could say I’m a visual thinker: whereas some people are inspired by ideas or sounds or even smells, my personal muse seems have big, wide-open eyes. When I’m in search of inspiration, looking is more fruitful than thinking: thinking just leads me in circles, but looking at something interesting perks me up in a way that few other things can.

Through leaves

Last weekend while I was at Northeastern University for the BRAWN Summer Institute, I went to a session on place-based pedagogy. I’ve always described Hoarded Ordinaries as being a blog about place, and when I taught a first-year writing class called “The Art of Natural History” at Keene State College, I encouraged my students to choose research topics that similarly close-to-home: “topics they could touch” was how I described it. Now that I divide my days between two different campuses, I’ve struggled to incorporate place into my teaching: it’s hard to feel rooted when your teaching is neither here nor there.

Signature

During that session on place-based pedagogy, however, something remarkable happened: we took a field trip. Half of the participants went to examine the Student Center food court, and my half of the session went outside, walking over to a brick wall where Los Angeles-based street artist El Mac recently painted a mural representing the union of arts and sciences. Our official assignment was simply to look at the mural, and when we reunited with the other half of the group, we discussed the various uses of these two spaces: indoor and outdoor. But what fascinated me most wasn’t that ensuing discussion but the simple act of looking an an interesting image.

Leafy

Having taken so many photos of the Wall at Central Square, I’ve developed a certain fondness for the look of spray paint on brick. And having once had an office inside Holmes and then Nightingale Halls–two of the academic buildings housed in the re-purposed factory where El Mac’s mural is situated–I love the look of the neighborhood these days. A brick wall can be a frustrating obstacle–something that blocks the sky and gets in the way of forward progress–or it can be a canvas of opportunity, a window into a world you can envision only with your inner eye.

Click here for more photos of El Mac’s new mural at Northeastern. “Just looking” is a title I’ve used for two other blog posts: one describing a summer walk around my neighborhood here in Newton, and the other featuring one of my favorite photos.

Emerging

In the hands of talented artists, even the most simple materials are transformed into metaphors. Last weekend when I attended the BRAWN Summer Institute at Northeastern University, I was captivated by “Banquet for Unity,” an installation by Farzaneh and Bahareh Safarani featuring gold mesh butterflies emerging from Mason jars.

Aflutter

Surely we’ve all had Mason jar moments: times in our life when we feel contained, our wings beating uselessly against our constraints. For a butterfly in a Mason jar, freedom is close enough to see, but impossible to reach. A trapped butterfly will exert herself to the point of exhaustion because she has no choice. There’s nothing more tragic than a butterfly contained because butterflies are designed to fly. Their element is air, not earth, and everything in their essence points up, ethereal.

The moment when a bevy of butterflies alights into the ether–sunlit dust motes rising up rather than falling down–is breathtaking, even if the butterflies move only in your imagination, where your own soul is free.

Aloft

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