Inspiration’s Muse

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Writing is a lonely sport.  The cursor blinks menacingly on the empty background, angry photons burning trails onto doubt-filled retinas.  What will appear is unknown, something between garbage and genius, or worse…nothing.  When all seems lost, inspiration flutters down like a timorous butterfly.  And like magic, writing begins, timid at first, then braver, growing into a furious boldness that seems uncontainable, unstoppable, but then finally peters out to a whisper.  It is a type of alchemy, lead into gold and ultimately – sweet torture.

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“The Dream of Reason Creates Monsters” by Goya

Inspiration is Courageous

Where does inspiration come from, and with it – courage.  What is brave about banging on a keyboard?  Fear permeates the creative process, scratching roughshod into a reluctant spirit, stealing jewels from the claws of a sleeping dragon.  It is not the fear of a known physical force, injury, pain or death; it is far worse.  Physical wounds heal.  It is the fear of having nothing to say, of having an empty soul.  That is truly awful.

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“The Empty Chair” by Eva Cellini

Creativity is a Job

I lost a dear friend recently.  She was an artist.  She inspired me to write, encouraged me when things seemed at their most difficult.  “Touch it every day.”  She would say.  “No one knows where creativity lives.  It is a job, and if you don’t show up, you cannot succeed.  You must set the table if you expect your guests to arrive.”  She was right, it is a job, the most difficult one possible.  To be honest all the time, to never accept compromise, cowardice or timidity, to stare into blinding infinity and pull something from nothing.  To never give up, knowing that there is no end to your journey.

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“The Red Leaf” by Eva Cellini

The Muse is Selfish

The muses of creativity care nothing for our pain, discomfort or insecurities.  They kick at our heads when we are sleeping, driving or eating dinner with friends.  Like selfish children they demand our attention RIGHT NOW, not when it is convenient or expedient.  Ignore them and they will dart away like frightened deer.  Maybe they’ll come back in a day, a week, maybe never. Obey their cruel reason and be rewarded with something new, the blissful loss of time, but also with more insanity.  Because the muses are insane, exquisitely beautiful crazies.

The Muses

Science would have us believe we are bundles of chemical reactions, an accident of evolution that created consciousness.  All that we call beauty is just a hormonal reaction to certain frequencies of light and sound.  But that doesn’t explain Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven; where did they get their inspiration to bring such sublimity to the Earth.  Science stumbles at the gates of art and we have to look beyond the mundane explanations of logic, through the iron bars of rationality into the swirling mist of creativity – where the muses dance.

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“Memories of Cornell’s Lost Muse”by Ingrid Dee Magidson

Inspiration is the Paint, We Are The Canvas

Polyhymnia, sacred muse of poetry, and her eight sisters live beyond the limited mind.  They kiss our eyes when we sleep, pulling us into the soul-ripping abyss.  They temp us with words, shapes and colors, impossible ideas that would make others scoff or shrug.  Inspiration is their paint and we are their canvas.  One only needs to step aside, lower one’s head in humility and accept their gifts.  Gifts that must be passed on or fester like rotting fruit.

Sleep Well My Dear Friend

On August 9, 2017, my dear friend, Eva Cellini passed away.  My heart is broken.

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Eva in her studio 2001, photo credit: Gabriella Fabian

Eva and I are friends for almost 30 years (I use the present tense because love cannot die).  We would speak of the word friend as sacred, that too many threw the word around without meaning.  And indeed it has a deep, spiritual meaning for both of us.  It is love for another’s soul.  I have that for Eva and will miss our talks desperately.

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Swan by Eva Cellini, oil on board

We met in New York in 1991 when her husband Joseph was showing his artwork at my father’s gallery.  She was in her early 60s and me in my early 30s.  Almost my age now, what a circle.  She sent photos of her paintings to my gallery in Aspen.  I liked them, but hesitated to show them, not sure they were a fit.  Ingrid (my soon to be wife) saw the photos and fell in love instantly, insisting we show her work.  She called Eva that day and made it happen.  This began a long and amazing relationship for the three of us – Ingrid, Eva and me.  There was an instant connection, like people meeting again after many years apart.  Between Ingrid and me, I think we have spoken almost every week to Eva since then.  About art, science, literature, spirituality, the universe, the infinite and the finite.  Eva was insatiably curious, almost like a child about everything.  Our talks would continue for hours.

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Homage to Eva, by Ingrid Dee Magidson, 2007

Ingrid, now my wife, became instant friends with Eva, like sisters, though Eva was decades older.  When Ingrid began to explore her artistic nature, Eva inspired her, and there is much in Ingrid’s work that comes from Eva’s influence and support.  It makes me marvel at the nature of the universe, placing the right person in our path at the right time.  I believe Ingrid inspired Eva late in her artistic career as well, to reach into new and unknown territory.  They fed each other like only artists can do.

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Eva in her studio, ca. 1993

Eva was born in Hungary in 1925.  Her mother was a dancer and never married her father a writer.  Eva loved her mother dearly but would say how ill prepared she was to have a child.  So Eva was mostly raised by her stern, humorless grandparents who tried to stifle her artistic bent.  In 1939 World War II came to Hungary with all the violence and tragedy it could muster.  She told me of one horrific experience that seared itself onto my heart.  One day walking to school, she saw the dead body of her best friend lying on the street.  She was not allowed to stop, or even linger over her fallen friend, a fleeting glance was all she was allowed to say goodbye.

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Eva in her studio ca. 2000

Eva’s birth father was Jewish, a death sentence in those days.  When he was arrested by the Nazi occupiers, it was only by her mother’s fierce loyalty and bravery that she was able to free him.  Towards the end of the war, things became so dangerous for anyone with a drop of Jewish blood that the teenage Eva was hidden by friends in their apartment.  One day one side of their building was destroyed by a bomb.  They continued to live in the shattered apartment.  They survived somehow, as did her parents.

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My daughter, Isabella in Eva’s Studio, ca. 2005

Unfortunately, the cruelty did not end after the war.  The Soviet occupation of Hungary brought new and different horrors.  Eva began working in an art factory, a propaganda arm of the government where posters and fliers were created.  Images of rising officials would one day be plastered on every wall, only to disappear the next, never allowed to be spoken of again.  Her coworkers would sometimes disappear and no one was allowed to speak of them or even acknowledge that they had ever existed.

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Knight of the Cabbage by Eva Cellini, How she felt arriving in NYC without speaking English.

Eva met her beloved Joseph at this art factory, an extraordinary talent.  He was trained to paint like the old masters and was sought out for his skill.  The two became lovers and created a secure life.  That all changed in 1956.  The revolution was triggered with the death of a child by authorities at a soccer match.  The tensions had been boiling for years and this small event erupted into a spontaneous uprising throughout the country.  The Soviet occupation moved tanks and soldiers into Budapest to quell the rebellion.  Thousands fled their homeland, Eva and Joseph among them.

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Drawing of Nude by Joseph Cellini

With the clothes on their back, a few friends and infinite courage, they made their way through Austria, Italy and ultimately to New York City.  Eva spoke no English at the time, Joseph only a little.  She once described her experience to me upon arriving in New York.

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Monkey in Armor by Eva Cellini

 

 “Everyone was so beautifully dressed and they looked so open, ready to speak to each other about anything.  The many beautiful stores had everything imaginable for sale and everyone was so well fed.  Their eyes shined with ideas and excitement and there was an optimism that was contagious, that anything was possible.  I didn’t believe it was authentic at first, where were the police, the soldiers that would take everything away.  I was so guarded for so long, I didn’t know how to accept this new freedom.”

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Bug by Eva Cellini, oil on board

But accept it she did.  Eva, through all her horrible experiences had an undying optimism that permeated her being to the last.  She believed in people, always surprised and saddened when they disappointed her.

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The Red Leaf by Eva Cellini, based on an O’Henry story

Eva and Joseph thrived in New York City.  It was the golden age of illustration, a time when artists like Norman Rockwell and others would be paid thousands for their cover art.  They made enough to move out of the city and buy a home on a hill in Leonia, New Jersey, an artist enclave just on the other side of the George Washington Bridge.  Eva and Joseph transformed the attic of their home into a beautiful studio, windows and skylights bringing in the precious light.  They worked side by side until Joseph’s death in the mid-1990s.

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The Empty Chair by Eva Cellini, an homage to Joseph and the first painting Eva finished after his death

It was Joseph who encouraged Eva to turn to fine art in the 1980s, to break free of the deadlines, commissions and rules of illustration, to paint what she loved for herself.  Again Eva thrived, garnering a one-person show at the prestigious Auberbach art gallery on Madison Avenue.  She loved surrealism and that is what she painted for 40 years.  Work that has found its way to collections across the world, including Saudi Arabian princesses, the Woman’s Museum in Washington and my humble home.

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Eva resting after we installed her last show in my Aspen Gallery in 2008

Eva never took down Joseph’s easel in their studio, nor did she move his bed that remained opposite hers for 60 years.   Eva dreamed of one day meeting Joseph again and now she has.  I will miss our talks, but I only have to look into my own heart to feel her again.  I can hear her voice at the end of a three hour conversation.“Sleep well my dear friend.”

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Requiem by Eva Cellini.  Eva loved the drama of clouds and gray was her favorite color

The Mother of All Fears

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Drowned, burned, buried alive, starved, death by thirst, falling off a building, airplane crash, suffocation, are just a few of the truly great fears.  But there is one greater, one that is the source of all others.  It is so insidious we have to bury it deep in our subconscious, push it far away; so heinous we must deny it utterly.  It is in fact so awful, so unimaginable and indescribable that we can’t even conceive of it.

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More Frightening Than Death

And the greatest of all horrors is that we must all face it – that we are all headed straight for this ultimate terror.  It is not death, we know that one.  Death is certain, natural and inevitable.  Many have conquered the fear of death.  It is wise to live well, with intention, because we know it will someday end, will simply go out like the final flicker of a candle.

Humanity staves off the fear of death with religion, science and rationalization.  But we fail to look deeper at the sustained myths of living eternally on a cloud in the sky or being reincarnated.  Even burning in Hell for all eternity is easier to deal with than facing the truth.

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One Day We Will Lose Our Self

The consciousness that allows us to comprehend our individuality – our separateness from the billions of other men and women – will absolutely end.  What we call self, that unique person that we spend a lifetime developing and understanding will simple cease to be.  All the money, power, and accomplishments cannot change that.  Worst of all, is that it is inconceivable.  Even the deepest meditation involves mind.  When the mind ends, we end.

What if we could experience that before we die; know what it is like to be a no-mind, a no-self?  Would you try it, travel the unimaginable journey; face this fear and perhaps come back to tell others?

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Zombies as a Metaphor

Zombie stories and movies fascinate our imagination.  We hate these mindless creatures and revel in the men and women who try to survive the cartoonish world of a zombie apocalypse, those brave souls who would bash in the heads of the undead.  But these stories are fairy-tales, unreal, denying nature and physics.  Zombies are just a metaphor for the greater fear.  We use these stories to crack the impossible nature of what we must all face.    It is the no-mind we recoil from.

The development of advanced technology may allow us to experience nothingness, may even force it upon us.  Then the ultimate fear will be realized and the choice will have to be made: eternal life without self or death and the unknown.

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Threshold of the Mind faces the ultimate fear.  Can you?

Available now in print and audiobook – Buy it Today!

My Favorite Poem at 160 Years Old

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Les Fleur du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), a collection of 101 poems by Charles Baudelaire was first published in 1857.  Six of the poems were deemed so perverse and subversive, the French police rounded up and seized all available copies of the book.  Baudelaire and his publisher were arrested and tried on offenses to public decency.  That conviction wasn’t overturned until 1949.

Aren’t you just a little curious?

To the Reader

Folly and error, stinginess and sin
Possess our spirits and fatigue our flesh.
And like a pet we feed our tame remorse
As beggars take to nourishing their lice.

Our sins are stubborn, our contrition lax;
We offer lavishly our vows of faith
And turn back gladly to the path of filth,
Thinking mean tears will wash away our stains.

On evil’s pillow lies the alchemist
Satan Thrice-Great, who lulls our captive soul,
And all the richest metal of our will
Is vaporized by his hermetic arts.

Truly the Devil pulls on all our strings!
In most repugnant objects we find charms;
Each day we’re one step further into Hell,
Content to move across the stinking pit.

As a poor libertine will suck and kiss
The sad, tormented tit of some old whore,
We steal a furtive pleasure as we pass,
A shriveled orange that we squeeze and press.

Close, swarming, like a million writhing worms,
A demon nation riots in our brains,
And when we breathe, death flows into our lungs,
A secret stream of dull, lamenting cries.

If slaughter, or if arson, poison, rape
Have not as yet adorned our fine designs,
The banal canvas of our woeful fates,
It’s only that our spirit lacks the nerve.

But there with all the jackals, panthers, hounds,
The monkeys, scorpions, the vultures, snakes,
Those howling, yelping, grunting, crawling brutes,
The infamous menagerie of vice,

One creature only is most foul and false!
Though making no grand gestures, nor great cries,
He willingly would devastate the earth
And in one yawning swallow all the world;

He is Ennui! -with tear-filled eye he dreams
Of scaffolds, as he puffs his water-pipe.
Reader, you know this dainty monster too;
-Hypocrite reader,-fellowman,-my twin!

Books are Dead – Long Live Stories

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I love books.  I have hundreds in my library, have read hundreds more.  I get a warm comfortable feeling when I go to a bookstore or public library.  But I also know that the end is near for books.  I’m not sad or nostalgic about any of it.  Things change.

Tens of thousands of years ago, long before speech, man told each other stories through pantomime and play acting.  They acted out their hunting adventures or mishaps, probably laughed when Grog hit his head on a rock.  You can feel the truth in this, have this genetic memory as I do.

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Thousands of years after that, our brains developed speech and the stories got more sophisticated, more detailed.  They were passed around, embellished, exaggerated until they became myths and legends.  Really exaggerated, like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders and Apollo pulling the sun across the sky.

Mankind lived on the earth for hundreds of thousands of years telling stories without books.  Then some clever fellow in Mesopotamia scratched symbols in the dirt and invented writing.  Someone else smeared these symbols onto parchment (no fun for the lamb by the way) and presto we have scrolls, and if they are long enough, are really just rolled up books.

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Thousands of years after that, Gutenberg figured out a way to make multiple copies of the bible and by the 20th Century, we’re neck deep in books.  Millions and millions of them.  Even Hitler couldn’t burn enough to make a dent in the growing pile.

But if you look at the bigger picture, the history of humankind at approximately 500,000 years, books are still pretty new.  Writing is barely 5,000 years old, printed books only about 600 and the novel as we know it, less than 300.  And sad, though it may appear, books are going to disappear, are already disappearing, or more accurately, evolving.

Do you have children?  If not, have you ever seen one?  They love video.  In my day it was TV, “Gilligan’s island, Lost in Space.”  Horrible stuff.  Now it’s six second vines.  Amazing really, that you can tell a story in only six seconds.  YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Vimeo, Facebook, video is king.  We love them, devour them like chocolate on Easter.  They’re stories.

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Oh I know the argument, video and movies do the imagining for us.  Books make us create the pictures in our own head.  “The movie was pretty good, but the book was great.”  But someone had to create those stories, imagine them and how to present them.  Grog didn’t worry about that when he acted out a good hunt in front of the fire half a million years ago.  Plays are high art and movies are not?  Nonsense.  It’s all just human beings telling stories to each other.  And that’s what matters.

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Not long from now, we’ll agonize over the displacement of video and movies too.  We’ll watch and interact with Virtual Reality or maybe someday images will be beamed directly into our minds.  We can’t live without stories.  Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.”  I think it misses the point.  We are not that different from Grog in front of the fire, maybe no different at all.  I think we’re all just kids begging dad to tell us a goodnight story and don’t really care how it gets into our heads.

Threshold of the Mind by Jay Magidson

Threshold of the Mind by Jay Magidson a novel about  mankind addicted to Virtual Reality in the near future.

Available on Amazon.com in print, kindle and audiobook.  Buy it today!

The Light Shines Brightest in the Dark

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My friends are sometimes surprised by the darkness of my writing.  I guess I seem reasonably happy and modestly well-adjusted in person (which seems very strange to me).  But I love the darkness, gloom, and sometimes hopelessness, of the best fiction and poetry.  As a child, I loved reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I was often disappointed by the happy Hollywood endings of the movies my parents took me to.  The characters in the Tale Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado didn’t have happy endings.  They died miserably and got what they deserved.  Dark, I know, but oh so satisfying.

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So I asked myself, why is that.  Certainly, I can’t be alone.  Dante, Poe, Lovecraft, King, etc. have been writing tales that millions of people love and keep loving.  Many, like Poe and Lovecraft don’t give much, if any hope in their stories.  The darkness overwhelms the reader, yet he plods on through the dim corridors, deeper and deeper into the impenetrable mist.  Perhaps it’s like a roller coaster, the controlled fear, knowing we are basically safe, but scared into gratitude that we are alive, heart pounding in our chest, but alive. Maybe it’s schadenfreude, sharing someone else’s misery, but happy that they have it worse.  Or maybe it’s something deeper, something fundamental.

Why we Fear and Love the Dark

It is primal to fear the unknown, the darkness that shrouds the dense forest.  Do you have a pet, a cat or dog?  Why do they put their noses into dark holes in the ground?  They might smell an animal down there, but could just as easily get an eye poked or worse.  They’re curious.  And so are we.  It’s built into our DNA; we have to know what’s under that log (rattle snake, probably), in that cave (rabid wolf, most definitely), or in the abandoned mental institution (vindictive ghosts, of course).

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We go into the dark to shine our light into it, to expand our lives by testing our fear, pushing our own boundaries a tiny bit.  The worst thing God did for Adam and Eve was to make life too easy.  So he gave them a talking snake, pretty scary, right.

The Gift of Darkness

All decent stories have a problem, a challenge for the protagonist to overcome.  The darkest stories make that challenge insurmountable, tearing the fool’s eyes out for sticking his face into the fox hole.  One of my favorite books of all time is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  It’s written with such mastery that the reader is drawn inexorably into the deepest gloom imaginable, unable to pull free until its black conclusion and Kurtz’s dying words: “The horror, the horror.”

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Is it hopeless?  I don’t think so, at least that’s not the message I get from these stories or the ones I think of in my own writing.  We need the dark so we have a place to put the light.  Shine your flashlight on a summer day – nothing.  Then do it in a subterranean cave.  Fear is a limitation, a doorway into the unknown, and the only way to expand is to cross the threshold.  Otherwise, we stay on this side of the Garden of Eden, naked and stupid.

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The Case for Anarchy

Most people scoff at the virtues of anarchy.  We have no problem shouting to the heavens about the importance of freedom.  But complete freedom is the complete absence of control after all, and that can turn to chaos, horror like the final scene in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” (or the movie “The Purge” if the classics aren’t your thing).  Few of us want that, and it certainly isn’t the way to a civil society.

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Like all political extremes, way too far and everyone loses.   Take Socialism:  A measured amount gives us weekends, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, Social Security; too much and we get limited production, unmotivated workers, endless strikes and ultimately…tyranny.   What about Capitalism: a certain amount gives us easy access to capital to expand business, entrepreneurship, class mobility, opportunity for personal wealth; a lot gives us the robber barons of the 19th Century, low wages, severe income inequality, class warfare, and of course…tyranny.

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Anarchy is not Synonymous with Chaos

So why has anarchy become such a loaded word?  Let’s go back to the original meaning of the political idea and not the misunderstood concept that it is today.  The word itself comes from the ancient Greek word, anarchia, which loosely translates to “without leaders.”  In the mid-19th Century, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon codified the word into the political and philosophical concept of Anarchism, a leaderless state, or more simply, one without government.  The idealized version of Anarchism is simply that the individual is free to do whatever he wants as long as he doesn’t interfere in another’s right to do the same.

But it’s not so simple.  Unfortunately, a society without government, rules, property or laws likely devolves into chaos, as we’ve seen so many times around the world.  And anarchy at its extreme becomes synonymous with chaos, horror and ultimately…tyranny.  But what happens if we introduce a bit of anarchy into our lives?  Let’s call it personal anarchy.

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Personal Anarchy

Let’s say you quit that shitty job, start your own business, home school your kids, throw away your smart phone, grow some lettuce on the windowsill, write those memoirs in the dead of night or just get a nose ring?  Personal change and expression occur and perhaps if you’re lucky, comes with a little spark of happiness.

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This is an ancient idea, one which many people have discovered on their own.  For the creative spirit, society’s rules suck and its narrow vision of what’s right for the individual sucks too.  So many have decided to do things slightly, or completely different.  Where do you think art comes from?  Certainly not from robot-like abeyance to the rules.  Nature teaches us that life is change, exploration and curiosity the norm; that stability and predictability bring about stagnation and death.

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We call it many things, personal exploration, introspection, individual liberty, creative expression, but all of this is really letting go of just a little personal control and introducing a bit of uncertainty into our ordered lives.  A little bit of the unknown, like fairy dust shakes things up.  I call it personal anarchy; you can call it anything you like.  But the goal is the same, personal growth, and hopefully, a moment or two of freedom, even happiness.

Back in the Director’s Chair

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January can be cold and dark in Aspen, and so it was when I said goodbye to my gallery for the last time 7 years ago.  I had been there 19 years,  I knew I would miss it, the wonderful collectors, meeting new people, helping them find art they would love.  Simply put, it was time.  But in a quiet way, I knew I would be back, some day in a different experience.  I can never do the same thing twice, I’m just built that way.

So when artist, Nancy Noel contacted me in early August about running her new gallery, I had mixed feelings, not realizing I was ready to come back to directing a gallery. I knew she needed a director, I had been contact by no fewer than three different acquaintances to this fact. And apparently, several people had given her my name as well. I wasn’t really thinking of running a gallery again, not really. But life does present surprises and I do love surprises.

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Interfearing with Time, 91×134 (yes, almost 8 x 12 feet!)

Nancy and I met on the Saturday before the Monday she was planning to return to her home in Indiana. I met with her mostly out of curiosity. Nancy and her two sons sort of interviewed me. I say sort of, because I was never asked for a resume or anything like that. We just spoke about her new gallery and what I might suggest. The more we spoke, the more intrigued I became. It was clear the gallery needed a director and the director need a gallery. We met again on Sunday evening; I suspect both of us had already decided what we would do. And I started the next day.

In every way this was going to be a different gallery experience. N.A. Noel Gallery carries only Nancy’s work. This is new for me. There are many successful one person galleries in the world, but it requires a different approach. I’m used to presenting various one-person exhibitions and finding new artists and promoting their art and career.  Nancy’s career is well established. She also paints from a unique vantage point, driven only by her spiritual guides. Nancy might paint an angel one day, and an Amish girl the next, or an enormous clock laden with crows the next. Each has a rich story to tell.

Touch, 68 x 92"

Touch, 68 x 92″

Nancy’s skill with a brush is unquestionable and you can feel the emotional passion behind each stroke. This is the work of an artist driven to express what is welling up in her soul. Throughout her career she has drawn spectacular collectors to her work, people like Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford and Nelson Mandela. But more importantly, her work is passionate.  In the short time I’ve been running the gallery, I’ve seen viewers become overwhelmed with emotion, some crying, others expressing long buried stories about loved ones. She calls her gallery in Indiana a sanctuary. I think that’s the right word here too. Nancy’s work draws out those deeply buried feeling locked inside each of us.

N.A. Noel Preschool, Kenya

N.A. Noel Preschool, Kenya

I was also intrigued by Nancy’s personal story. She is modest and it takes some tugging, but eventually some of her story came out. She is passionate about her work with children, animals and the planet. And she does something about it. Nancy has built a preschool in Kenya, helping hundreds of children learn and get basic health care. It is a great success story, which touched me deeply and helped me make my decision to work with someone this compassionate.

The N.A. Noel Gallery

The N.A. Noel Gallery

Everything about the Aspen gallery is unique, the art, the artist, the collectors, the way we present the work, the way viewers approach the art. All of it is different. I love to learn and I love the expansive experience it offers. For example, last week we invited the Tibetan Monks of Gadan Shartse to do a blessing ceremony in the gallery. After an hour of chanting and prayer, the room glowed with spiritual light. Not exactly your typical art gallery, right? Good, because I don’t want ordinary, I want extraordinary.

Monks Blessing the Gallery

Monks Blessing the Gallery

When you are visiting Aspen, please stop in and say hello. I’m glad to be directing again and honored to be presenting art that touches people’s souls in a magnificent gallery.

 

 

Through the Blackness of Fear – Origins of a Short Story

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Colors by Jay Magidson is now available in print

Colors by Jay Magidson

Sometimes an idea builds inside like a kind of spiritual pressure, threatening to overwhelm the holder, even consume him. This happened to me about ten years ago. I had been writing short stories over the past year. There was no thought to what they might be used for or why I was writing them, just when they came up, I would commit them to paper. It was only recently that I even understood their purpose, and their power in my life.

Each story had a single color as its title. The first was Gray, the Kafkaesque tale of a man lost in a featureless city. Another was Yellow, about an antique’s dealer consumed slowly each night by a dead cat representing his contradictory life.

The story that began to overwhelm me, I later called Black. It started as only a seed of a feeling, a bit of undefined anxiety. I would wake at night with a deep, unexplainable fear. Everything was going well in my life and I had no reason to feel this way. I pushed it aside, ignoring it as just general anxiety about life. But it grew stronger until it began to consume me, holding a kind of opaque fabric in front of my vision.

I lost quite a bit of sleep, lying there, desperately trying to push the horrible feelings away, running from this undefinable dark fog. Out of desperation on the third night, I got up, my stomach in a deeply clenched knot and sat in front of my computer and began to write. Without thinking about it, the words began to pour out of my fingers and instead of feeling relief and peace, the way I usually do when I sit down to write, the fear grew worse. I realized there was no way around this feeling, that the only way out, was through the blackness. I was terrified.

With a deep breath, I dove into the bleak feeling and for the first time, touched it. The best I can describe it, was like a kind of river flowing beneath the surface of my life, a river of unexplored pain. I dipped my hand into that river, touching its icy thickness. The fear and anxiety only grew worse, and I knew what I must do in that moment. I had to jump in.

The story began to flow like nothing else I had ever written before, nothing related to my life, as if I were a completely different person releasing this horrible and dark crime that had been eating at me, consuming me with guilt until I couldn’t bear it anymore.

The entire story came out that night, in one marathon sitting. And when I laid done the final period I was free. The fear had left me, replaced with a deep sense of gratitude and wonder at life. I had dove through that river of pain and had been cleansed by its fire, rising up on the other side a different, better person.

I’ve put the short story online here, if you would like to read it. It is surreal and personal, without any reference in my life. I read it now, still wondering where it can from, or why I wrote it, not really sure what it means. I only know that I had to write it, had to release it, or would have been consumed by it.

I think we misunderstand fear, shying away from it, avoiding the pain it represents. And when that suggests bodily injury, that’s probably wise, a mechanism for keeping us safe, built into our DNA. But there is another kind of fear, that which we need to embrace. It holds a deep kind of meaning on the other side of its invisible veil; we must leap the chasm with only our faith to keep us aloft. And on the other side is peace, growth, understanding, and maybe if we are lucky, a bit of wisdom.

 

One Second from Drowning and Other Stupid Ideas

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The best things to write about are those which are most difficult, the ones that make your palms sweat remembering them. For me it was 30 years ago when a foolish decision found me holding my breath in a dark underwater cave without a way out.

I was living on Maui in the mid-80s; things were simple, no responsibilities, few bills and good friends. We loved to hike and explore the beautiful tropical island. Maui was different then, still relatively unspoiled by strip malls and traffic. We’d often meet at a place called “Paradise Fruit” on Kihei Road, a funky place with dirt floors and picnic benches, where they sold fresh fruit and smoothies to the locals. You could feel the moist ocean breeze and hear the surf just beyond the small parking lot filled with rusting junkers, surfboards strapped to their roofs.

800px-Waianapanapa_lava_tube_2A group of us decided to go to Wai’anapanapa caves, a state park near Hana. It is and was a very touristy spot, but a place none of us had been to. Hana is a tiny, remote town at the far end of Maui, about a three hour drive along a windy, mostly single lane road. Wai’anapanapa caves are a maze of ancient lava tubes that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago when the volcano was active. They have since filled with fresh water, which eventually empties into the ocean nearby. It is a spectacularly beautiful place, and like all areas that are overrun with tourists, if you explore just a little further than most people, you will find the truly magical part.

And that’s what we did. Most visitors jump into the first cave pool which is exposed to the outside and leave. The water is cold and that pretty much completes it for most people. But the caves don’t end there, not even close, they go on for miles into the bowels of the mountain, hundreds of large and small caves, connecting like Swiss cheese. The problem is the water is cold, and it is pitch black once you go even a short way into the maze.

cave poolOne of my friends brought a waterproof flashlight and another brought a pair of swim-goggles, those little ones that just cover your eyes for swimming laps. But just one of each, and there were four of us, so we had to stay together. Which was probably a good idea, one which I should have heeded.

We followed the first large cave into the dimness until we reached a dead-end. We had been told there was another large cave on the other side only accessible by an underwater tunnel. OK, scary and challenging. Andrew, my crazy friend, took the light and swim-goggles and disappeared under the water. He was back in a few seconds. “It’s easy, down a little, straight ahead and up, there is another cave with a large air pocket.” One by one we went through. It was not deep, only about four or five feet under the water, then up the other side. Now we were in a separate cave about 10 or 15 feet in diameter, with about five feet of airspace overhead.

It was fun to turn off the light and enjoy the intense blackness of the interior cave. But we couldn’t linger here very long. The water was cold and we were treading water, the bottom far below us. The wise thing would have been to go back. The wise thing…

It was Andrew again who dove down and looked for another path. He went down, this time without the light. He came back a few seconds later. “Hey there is an opening or tunnel and it is glowing with light.” We took turns looking, sharing the one pair of swim goggles to see what he was talking about. When it was my turn, I took the goggles, a deep breath and dove down.

underwaterMy hands get clammy and my heart tightens as I remember what came next. This was thirty years ago and it feels like yesterday. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling a terrible fear of drowning, that burning desire to breathe, but not being able to. It still haunts me.

I have never been afraid of the water and am a great swimmer; was on the swim and water polo teams in high school. I swam in the ocean in Maui regularly, was young and in good shape. But confidence can be our enemy, pushing us to take foolish risks with our lives.

I dove under. It was dark at first, away from the glowing flashlight in the cave above, and my eyes grew sensitive to the gloom. I spotted the glow of light that Andrew had seen about 15 feet below. It grew larger as I approached, the pressure of the depth causing my ears to pop. Once upon it, I realized it was indeed an opening, which must be another cave open to the sky.

Andrew had speculated the glow came from a cave with an open roof, a chimney he called it. Now looking at the dull green glow, I thought of that theory and decided to go in a few feet, take a look up as best I could and return to the others with my observation. We could decide if we wanted to do this together, perhaps holding hands, with a single leader as we only had the one pair of goggles.

I eased through the wide opening. The water immediately grew much lighter. Looking up at that depth through 10 or 15 feet of water gave me no clue to what was overhead. It was just blurry and brighter. I turned around to return to my friends, but my night vision was gone. I couldn’t see the opening in the darkness below and ran into the side wall. I had to make a decision quickly, fumble around for the opening, the right opening, or continue up into the light.

If there was light, surely there was air, right? So onward it was, into the unknown. The water was cold and we had been treading water in the cave, so the single gulp of air I had taken was nearly out. I had that awful feeling of needing to take a breath. I headed toward the bright green light, only it wasn’t up, but sideways. It was clearly a tunnel now that I moved forward, the semi-smooth walls of the watery lava tube visible on all sides of me. Gratefully it finally curved up, growing brighter and brighter, but also narrower and narrower, until my shoulders bumped first on one side, then the other and it became too cramped to pull with my arms.

My lungs screamed for air, and my mind raced in panic. The tunnel surely went to the surface to the light and air, but what if it was too narrow for me to swim through? Should I go back now, while I could still manage to turn my body around, force myself to swim into the darkness, all the while running out of air, feeling for an opening I hoped I could find; or risk going on only to be wedged into the narrow tunnel, quickly drowning when my body got stuck. With no time to waste on decisions, I went on.

The tunnel scraped my shoulders on both sides now, my arms ahead of me were now forced to stay this way as the tunnel was too narrow for me to bring them down to my sides. I was only able to swim on from the short strokes of my barely kicking legs.
I was out of air. I can’t know what it’s like for other people when they face the possibility of death. For me in that moment it was peaceful, an inevitability that removed fear. I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it. The single breath of cold damp air from the dark cavern far behind me was long used up and I was going to drown because of one stupid decision. I thought of my friends waiting behind, not knowing what happened to me, hoping they wouldn’t follow. I thought of my family and my brief life, was it really supposed to be this short. Oh well, better luck next time.

Warm air and blinding sunshine slapped my face; blessed sweet air that I gulped in great spasms. I had blasted through to the outside of the entire cave system, to the park and trails that surround it. A young couple who had been walking by, stared at me in surprise and wonder, a swamp monster who had suddenly burst out of a tiny pool of rotting leaves barely two feet across. What the hell.

escher puddleI stood there shivering and panting, realizing how close I had come to the end. Air and warmth soon refilled my lungs and damaged psyche. I was alive – am alive. I thought briefly of going back into the tunnel to warn my friends not to follow. But the thought of diving blindly through the rotting leaves into the cold darkness below overwhelmed me and I couldn’t do it.

Time is a strange thing, expanding and contracting at the same time. The whole experience was surely less than a single minute. I have no idea. It was an infinity in my mind, stretching and stretching into hours. I would never willing repeat the experience, but I’m glad it happened. I’m a little less afraid of death and a lot more in love with life because of it.