A Note On Understanding


Family. Kristin Vestgard, oil on canvas, 2006.

The following is an abridged version of an editorial I wrote for American Athenaeum Magazine’s “The Understanders” issue in Winter 2012.

The summer before last, a high school friend of my husband, who was also becoming a friend of mine, asked me one night, out of the blue, “How are you so nice to people?” I was surprised by the question and didn’t really know how to answer it, but I managed to say, “Well, I think I understand people.” He responded with a laugh and said, “I guess that’s the difference between you and me. I don’t understand people at all.” It was such a casual, in-passing kind of conversation that I would have forgotten it, except that that was the last night I ever saw him, and it was one of the last things he ever said to me. A little more than a month later, he committed suicide.

I realize this is a macabre, intimate story to share. I don’t mean to be confessional, and I certainly don’t mean to be macabre. But I think that memory is important here because it highlights a significant but not often enough considered aspect of the theme of this issue: the fundamental value of understanding for one’s own salvation.

When we speak of compassion and understanding, we often think of it as a kind of votive offering, a sacrifice, something we give of ourselves to others. And there’s truth in that. True understanding is deconstructive. It requires us to break down those presumptions and hard beliefs that act as walls to divide us from other people– especially those people whom we consider our enemies — and to reconsider our world and the events that happen within it from a perspective beyond ourselves. Doing so requires humility in accepting that our perceptions of the world and our understanding even of ourselves is subjective; it also requires a nimble imagination to go beyond our particular experiences and modes of thinking. Understanding is challenging and too often taken for granted.

Even so, understanding doesn’t have to be perfect to have its effect. Often, simply acknowledging that another person has a completely different frame of reference that we may never fully comprehend is enough to humble us, to make us reconsider (or consider for the first time) our sense of our own righteousness. What I meant when I told my friend that I think I understand people was that I understand, however imperfectly, that every person I meet has known pain and that pain is very often the cause of the hurtful, sometimes truly terrible things people do. It doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t often feel frustrated — even enraged — by others’ actions and words, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I haven’t sometimes hurt other people. But I do carry with me that glimpse of wisdom in knowing that there is a common thread that binds us all together and that this thread is, macabre as it sounds, pain. This unifying thread reminds me to be kind as often as I can, in whatever small or great ways I find. It also reminds me to forgive and move past the pain I experience. Understanding our common humanity — our sensitivity and frailty — makes us able to use that pain to heal rather than as a weapon.

Carl Jung’s first mandala

As I’ve said, healing ourselves through understanding is inherently a part of that forward movement. This is something that my friend unfortunately never realized. To him, his pain was unique and unbearable. He didn’t understand that others had felt similar pain before, that it was something we keep mostly hidden, as he had done. When we can’t perceive the suffering of others, we are left only with ourselves and our own heavy pain. We are engulfed by it, and it makes us feel supremely, desperately lonely.

Because many of us don’t often share our pains with each other face-to-face — perhaps we’re ashamed to; maybe others discourage it, finding it uncomfortable or even frightening; or perhaps the opportunity never really comes up — it is often through art that we learn to understand and find understanding in others. James Baldwin wrote in The Price of the Ticket: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Reading opens us up to a larger community — however remote in space and time — that is always there, and through it we realize that we are never truly alone. Reading makes it possible for us to experience the pain of others, helps us begin to understand experiences that may be far removed from our own and otherwise inaccessible to us, and to find the common threads between our own and others’ stories. This connection through words is what Baldwin relished. …

It is a gift to ourselves to understand — to see the humanity in others, to see ourselves in them and, reflexively, them in ourselves. This is how enemies cease to be enemies, how strangers grow close and become part of a growing sense of a human family. It allows us not only to become kinder to others but also to ourselves. Understanding makes it possible for us to persist in spite of our struggles, in spite of our pain, because we know that others have been before where we are now.

I hope that the stories and poetry in this issue help us all to do just that: to be challenged, to be seized and opened wide, to take in alien thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to be made freshly vulnerable to pain, and therefore to be transformed, made greater and more understanding, and to be healed. Because we can be healed by understanding, in recognizing and accepting the pain that lies in others and in learning to identify and love the humanity revealed by that pain. Through that, we can be re-made universal and whole.

To purchase the issue, click here.

Call for Submissions: American Athenaeum

A very good friend of mine, Hunter Liguore, is heading up a new literary journal, American Athenaeum, which will contain “a variety of fiction and poetry, along with regular columns that run the gamut of American arts. We consider this journal to be a museum of artistic endeavors, filled with cultural appreciation and stories that not only teach, but demonstrate the frailty of the human condition” (from the Sword and Saga Press website).

There are five themed issues and one general issue, and the call for submissions goes out for all of them. I’m the managing editor for the Compassion/Epsilon issue, so I’ll be selfish and request that you particularly consider submitting to that one, but all issues are equally valuable and in need of stories, poems and essays. We’re also interested in art submissions to give the issues some visual punch. Click this link to access the American Athenaeum homepage, where you’ll find all the information and links you’ll need to submit. Submissions are made electronically through Submishmash, which is free, easy to use and environmentally friendly. ^_^

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below or fill out the contact form on the AA website linked above. We look forward to reading your work!

Animal Images and the Image as Animal: Tricia Cline’s Exiles in Lower Utopia

Exile of the Deer, Tricia Cline. Porcelain. 2008.

I recently stumbled upon Tricia Cline’s porcelain sculptures (thank you, art pinners on Pinterest!). Her work has a quality that I tend to (mostly subconsciously) seek out and appreciate in all art forms — an otherworldliness, often lovely, but a little strange, unsettling, maybe creepy, though not in any particularly obvious way. Which is, incidentally, how many of my stories have been described. I guess it’s my thing. Anyway, I went to her website and became even more fascinated by her work after reading the artist’s statement for her most recent series of sculptures, Exiles in Lower Utopia. It’s beautifully worded, so instead of paraphrasing, I’m providing it below in its entirety:

This body of work is an ode to the Animal, its ability to perceive, and our return to that perception. An animal is its very form. Its function is its form. A dog runs at full speed, a distinct scent or sound alters its direction. The legs, the nose, the ears of the dog are its function, its bliss. When an animal recognizes another animal it reads with an instinctual eye the character in the form- the essential nature in the form before it. Its text is not a concept about what it’s looking at but a full-bodied response to the shape, smell, movement, and stance of the image in front of it. The language of animals is the language of images. An image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal. 

This is the ode–to reconnect with our own animal perception is to clarify and heighten our perception of who and what we are in the moment… to go beyond the limited mental concepts of who we think we are… to an awareness of oneself that is infinitely more vast. The Exiles migrate between the human world and the animal world and carry this awareness on their backs. They are the silent embodiment of this Quest. They understand the language of animals and are self-appointed ambassadors from that world. They are firmly seated, in the language of animals, the language of imagery. They have succeeded by virtue of being.

The key points for me are: 1) to read something by its image is not necessarily to limit because “an image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal,” and 2) reconnecting with our animal selves is a task that, rather than taking us backward, moves us forward into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. By understanding an image (that is, one’s perception of a thing) as an animal itself — something complex, evasive and in constant movement — on its own terms, rather than trying to define and redefine it through static statements that ultimately fall short, we come closer to seeing things as they truly are. In this way, Cline’s Exiles function as envoys and icons to remind us of our secret, truer selves whose virtues are merely being and seeing.

Literature has its place on this path as well, in spite of its form being limited to words (which is what makes writing so difficult — it’s the least sensual medium of all). As with other art forms, the key to creating truthful literature is to create images, and to do this, one must avoid making direct statements about things. We have to beat around the bush, to talk around a subject — not to evade, but to more clearly illustrate the ineffable. Creating literature — stories, poetry, essays, plays — is not about making some single, absolute declaration; it’s about creating, out of nothing, those image-animals that breathe on their own, that have layers of secrets and truths. It is to create something that allows others to create their own image-animals.

Flannery O’Connor said in her speech-turned-essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”: “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks” because the truth of the clerk is best communicated by literal details like his wearing list slippers than any abstract and frankly stated “grand ideas and bristling emotions”  that a writer might thrust on him. We humans are sensual creatures, just like the other animals around us, and in spite of our impressive ability to think abstractly, we still (and have always and will always) respond most strongly to that which we perceive through our senses. And so it is through complex, free and living images liberated from vain abstractions (e.g. “bad,” “ugly,” “moral,” “beautiful”) that we perceive truth. Our labor is to see things as they are — in all their complexity — and then hold our tongues, rather than whittle them down to concrete, abstract terms.

You can view more of Cline’s images on her website (linked above). And you’re welcome to share your thoughts on her work (and my words) below.

The Magic of Creation: Remedios Varo

Okay, it’s been a while. The past couple of months or so have been pretty stressful emotionally and mentally, and I found it necessary to turn inward and shut the external world out for the most part. So I really wasn’t thinking at all about writing a new blog post (not that I post prolifically anyway) or spending much time communicating at all, except to my husband, family and a few close friends. Nevertheless, that old guilt about having a blog and not using it has been quietly building up inside me. So, in order to quell the guilt while expressing some of my current preoccupations, I’ve decided to showcase an artist who is a new (very) favorite mine.

Born in Spain in 1908, Remedios Varo (full name: María de los Remedios Varo Uranga) spent her early childhood traveling around Spain and North Africa, living wherever her father, a hydraulic engineer, found work. Her family finally settled in Madrid, and while there, she studied painting at the Academia de San Fernando. She left Spain for Paris in the early 1930s to immerse herself in Surrealism, but returned to Spain in 1935 to live in Barcelona and joined the art group Logicophobiste. Varo returned to Paris in 1937 to escape the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and in 1941, she was forced again to relocate, this time to Mexico to escape the Nazi occupation of France. She lived in Latin America for the rest of her life, becoming friends with fellow artists Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and others, especially fellow ex-pat Leonora Carrington. Varo’s beautifully haunting style matured throughout the 1950s and reached its height in the early 1960s. She died in 1963 of a heart attack. Despite having a well-developed, distinct style, Varo is not well known. Male Surrealists (and others in the art community) often considered the work of their female colleagues to be inferior, making it difficult for female artists to promote their work, and so many Surrealist and similarly aligned female artists like Varo suffered in obscurity. Only recently has an interest in their work begun to develop.

Varo’s paintings are highly allegorical with a wide range of influences, including pre-Columbian art, Surrealism, Sufism and the I-Ching as well as the theories of analyst Carl Jung, medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart and Russian theosophist Helena Blavatsky. Varo viewed all of these sources as avenues to self-realization and the transformation of consciousness. Her paintings portray fantastic, often female or ambiguously feminine characters in isolated, confined environments, usually in some act of creation, as in Creation of the Birds (1957). Much of her work is interpreted as an expression of her frustration at being marginalized as a woman and as a female artist — themes that are certainly expressed in paintings like Visit to the Plastic Surgeon (1960) and Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (1961).

But what interests me most about Varo’s paintings are not their social or political statements, but her emphasis on the mysteries and potential of the mind, especially as it finds expression in the arts. The creation of art is rendered as a kind of magic in her paintings, depicted as both a mechanical and supremely natural process. It is a way to both act on the external world and transform and nourish the self. It is a kind of alchemy, taking base materials (for Varo, masonite, oils, brushes, colors and shapes; or for me, leaves of paper and a pen, a laptop and combinations of letters that essentially mean nothing except whatever meaning we give them) and manipulating those elements to create something new and meaningful, to express the ineffable.

I discovered Varo’s work not too long ago (around the same time that the difficulties I mentioned above arose, or maybe a little before) and, in turning inward, I’ve been considering the same kinds of things that Varo depicts in her work. Many people are suspicious of fantasy, but it’s such a necessary tool for exploring ourselves, the world around us and the connections between the two.

Below are several examples of Remedios Varo’s work; click on the images to view them larger. For more information about Remedios Varo and her paintings, here’s a helpful link. And, as always, you’re welcome to leave comments at the bottom of the page.

Creation of the Birds - 1959

Visit to the Plastic Surgeon - 1960

Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst - 1960

Solar Music - 1961

The Life Acrylic: Alexa Meade’s Painted People

Rather than painting realistic images on canvas, taking surreal photographs, or painting renditions of well-known art on human bodies, 24-year-old Washington, D.C., artist Alexa Meade has brought the three together, painting her subjects as artistically rendered versions of themselves and then snapping photos of them in a variety of painted and unpainted settings. It’s a fresh mix of acrylic painting, performance art, and photography that asks us to reconsider the relationship between art and reality.

One piece, Transit (above), features an elderly man standing in a subway car, looking entirely convincing as a two-dimensional image, and I love the reactions of the unpainted people around him, who aren’t sure what’s going on but are trying to seem indifferent. The painted man, on the other hand, seems isolated, almost like a cardboard cut-out. The photo asks: “What if art really lived among us? Rode the subway with us, like anyone else?” It takes art off the wall and goes for a walk with it, just to see what happens: how it interacts with its environment, or doesn’t, and how its presence alters our perceptions of everything else.

Meade has also made several self-portraits. Of these, Alexa Split in Two (right) has perhaps the most to say about the give-and-take between art and reality as we compare the unpainted self with the painted self: there’s a kind of textural movement in the stillness of the image that we likely wouldn’t have noticed without the paint; we can better see the play of light and color on her skin and the contours of her bone structure. Visually, it’s the left half that has more life and it enriches our impression of reality. The image shows us how Meade views the world — with sharper, more sensitive and sensual eyes — through her versions of herself as both art and artist.

What do you think of Ms. Meade’s work? How does it affect your views of reality and art?

To see more of Alexa Meade’s work, visit her website or her Flickr page. And feel free to comment below.