This is a video of a piece I wrote and performed at my friend Sarah Carleton's fundraiser for International Justice Mission and Restore International. It was a really wonderful event...for more details on that, you can visit this site.
Writing and performing a piece about beauty is not easy, if only because it becomes so personal. In working through the process of writing, staging, and performing Currency, I had to become okay with the fact that what the piece says about other people, and what the piece says about me, are both equally apparent. The only way to have the audience experience questions I wanted them to ask was through the medium of my own explorations and insecurities, and my own physical work, presented on stage. That was very scary.
A few years ago I happened upon a quote by CS Lewis, in the novel That Hideous Strength. He writes: “The beauty of the female is the root of joy to the female as well as to the male, and it is no accident that the goddess of Love is older and stronger than the god.” I was captivated by this quote, mostly because I have felt its truth myself. It was from this line of thought that I ultimately found the pieces to create Currency. I began to wonder: what if we acknowledged our limitations, and our preferences in the area of beauty? How would it change the way we act, towards ourselves and toward others, if we were honest about the glory and the danger of being instruments that can give and receive pleasure, simply by being embodied?
In a world of extremes, these are dangerous questions. Like C.S. Lewis’s Ghost, in the excerpt quoted from The Great Divorce, it is so impossible to see ourselves without comparison. And perhaps the corruption we experience in this world, right down to the sex trade itself, can be traced back to the impossible task of seeing ourselves not through eyes that weigh, and compare, but through eyes made holy by the grace of God—the grace C.S. Lewis’s Spirit is so tenaciously trying to offer the shabby female Ghost.
In any case, these are questions we have to ask. Questions I had to ask, and I ask you to continue asking. Even at the risk of discovery.
Please forgive the quality of the video. And because the quality is bad, it's difficult to tell what I'm doing at the beginning of the piece. I am mimicking the photographs of women pasted to the wall. The song played at the beginning is "Grace," by the band U2, and the excerpt of dramatic reading in the middle is from "The Great Divorce," by CS Lewis.
Last night I had the privilege of performing at a benefit that raised money for The International Justice Mission and Restore International. It was a great night, with good art, and good discussion. Unfortunately, I also had the privilege of inviting an unwelcome guest back to my house.
As I was undressing in my bedroom, late at night, I pulled my dress off and casually glanced down at my stomach. And there, just above my bellybutton, was a bug. I am terrified of ticks. So of course, my first thought was TICKOHMYGOSHTICKOHMYGOSHTIIIIIICK. I dropped my dress on the ground, and brushed at it with my hand. But I knew it was not going to flick off, because I knew it was a tick. And it was.
Now, what I thought I would do in this situation is very different than what I actually did, and that is a very good thing. My first experience with ticks was when I was 12 years old, and we had been hiking in the woods of New Jersey. Someone in the family found one crawling up their leg, and then my mom found one in her thigh. This experience severely traumatized me, and I have been worried about getting a tick ever since. (Understandable that I would be obsessed with this worry, seeing as I have also been convinced several times through the years that I have a tapeworm living in my intestines.)
Despite my fears, however, I have never actually had a tick. Until last night. What I thought I would do was to scream, and then panic, and then run downstairs and wake my mother up and make her take care of it. I can’t deny that for a moment, I did consider waking my mother up. But I didn’t scream. And I didn’t panic. And I decided, as I stood in my bedroom, that as a capable 23 year old woman, I could fix this problem all by myself.
The calmness with which I then proceeded to act is, in retrospect, very impressive. I picked up my clothes from the floor and checked them for more ticks. I checked the rest of my body for ticks. I checked my hair several times (because that would be the worst. At least with the tick on my stomach, I could keep an eye on him.) Then I went to my computer and looked up “how to remove a tick.” WebMD was very helpful. I read that you are supposed to grasp the tick as close to the mouth as possible and pull gently until it detaches itself, making sure it doesn’t leave anything in your skin. And then you’re supposed to save it for further identification. And I did all these precautionary things calmly (and quickly), with the little guy calmly sucking away at my stomach.
Finally, I went downstairs to the bathroom. I got out the tweezers, and stood in front of the mirror. In crisis situations, I like to give myself a pep talk. “You can do this,” I told myself. “You can DO. THIS.”
I have since looked at pictures of ticks online to try to identify the type, and what I have found out is a) it was a fairly large tick (about 1 centimeter) and b) it was not bloated at all yet. Both these things combined made it much easier to get him out of me. But in the heat of the moment, all I really knew was that when I grasped its neck with my tweezers, it immediately began scrabbling its legs against me, and I could totally feel its suckers inside my skin.
And this is where I would like to congratulate myself. I let go of the bug and looked up, saying out loud, “Oh my gosh. I can’t do this. I can’t DO this.” But did I put the tweezers down and go wake someone up for help? Did I dissolve into tears or scream in panic? NO. I did not. I steeled myself, grasped it again with the tweezers, and pulled, despite the wiggling legs and the terrifying sensation of a sucking bug sucking me. The more I pulled, the more it became about defeating the horrible thing, and less about the grossness of the situation. And that is what enabled me to keep pulling until it detached itself from my skin.
Because I am a woman, and women are strong enough to remove ticks from their stomachs without help. And even though those were not the thoughts going through my brain (it was more like, “get it out get it out get it out come on come on come on GET. IT. OUT.”) I am proud to say that I rose to the challenge, when the crisis came. And I wholeheartedly believe that most women (and men) would do the same.
Turns out that little tick was almost as persistent as I was. After I got him out, I set him down on the counter and stabbed him through with the tweezers. But then I got a cotton ball and cleaned the area of my skin he was sucking, and as I was putting some polysporin on, I looked down…and there was no tick on the counter.
That was the moment to panic.
After frantically searching, guess where I found him? Yes. On my shorts. Trying to suck some more of my blood. Needless to say, this time I completely mangled him and washed him down the sink. Identification be damned. That thing needed to be gone forever.
And that is how I discovered that the roots of my courage go down much deeper than I knew (at least in the bug department). And I also discovered that ticks are persistent. And incredibly disgusting. So next time you go into or near the woods, check yourself for ticks. And if you find one, don’t be afraid. You too can defeat it, and live to tell the story.
Hannah and I have decided that every so often, we will write a post profiling a famous, but not widely know, woman from the past. The woman we’ve chosen to be our first is probably more infamous than famous. At least in the Boston area.
On a recent visit to Boston, Hannah and I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which is located in the Fenway area of Boston. On a gorgeous, sunny day, it was a bit surreal to go into the first part of the museum—constructed only in the last couple of years—to buy our tickets. Surreal because of the rest of the museum. The first part is all clean lines and perfect temperature and bright, pleasing colors: a 2012 version of symmetric, breathable classiness. But once you have your tickets, you walk through a glass portal into the museum, and the real fun begins.
This is a post about Isabella Stewart Gardner, not her museum. But as I walked through the rooms, I began to sense that the museum and the woman who created it speak volumes about each other. It’s a crazy place, that museum. In stark contrast to the balance and dignity of the newly constructed entryway, the museum (nestled into a huge house that was constructed to look like a 16th century Venetian residence) is a study in disorder. To Isabella, everything had a reason and a place. But to a visitor, it is chaos.
I wanted to know more as soon as I began wandering through the rooms. It was clear that whoever had designed the place had very strong ideas about what was important, and it was also clear that she was an amateur. Why else would she have placed Vermeers next to unknown 19th century prints? Why would she have hung a length of green silk cut from one of her own dresses under a Degas, and then placed a 16th century lectern, sporting a massive old manuscript underneath it?
The rooms were overwhelming in their eclectic style, and in the abundance of art. Several rooms were hung wall to wall with paintings, drawings and prints. Stepping into them and trying to look at each picture was impossible. And the experience of disorientation was only heightened by the security guards in each room. As I stared up at a painting of a woman with curly red hair, trying to find a mooring for my wandering eyes, I heard a voice close to my ear: “Does this painting…interest you?”
I turned to see an elderly security guard standing beside me. I said yes, too surprised and intrigued to say anything else, and he began to tell me in his thick accent about the woman in the painting, and how her granddaughter had stood on the spot where I now stood and told him that her grandmother had had 10 children, and was pregnant in the painting. “And from that moment, I knew, in my heart, this painting, it is the one,” he finished.
It was probably the best museum interaction I’ve ever had. As I continued walking around, I knew little more about Isabella Gardner than that she had very odd taste and had written into her will that nothing in the museum could be removed or added. But as I’ve read more about her, I realized that my interaction with the security guard is exactly what she envisioned for her museum. You can feel the eccentricities of her personality even now, almost 90 years after her death. But her museum is still doing what she intended it to do—bring art to Americans, and allow them the space to observe it in a disarming state of chaos.
Isabella Gardner was a crazy woman. What else can you call someone who, in 1912, attended the posh Boston Symphony Orchestra wearing a white headband emblazoned with “Oh, you Red Sox,” on it? Or, while building her museum, asked to borrow the beautiful and famous Sargent painting “El Jaleo” from her cousin, and once it was in her house began reconstructing a room to house it? That would make for an awkward conversation—which ultimately ended in the cousin gifting the painting to Isabella.
There are many details about Isabella’s life that fascinate me. There is her marriage to John Lowell Gardner (Jack), which was apparently a happy one, despite the loss of their 2-year old son in 1865. After their son died, they began collecting art, and Isabella conceived her dream of creating a museum—which Jack shot down, when he found out she wanted to transform their house. There is the fact that she contacted an architect in secret two years before her husband’s death, and that she brought the same architect (Willard T. Sears) up only ten days after Jack’s funeral to begin designing the museum. Apparently, art was a way of healing for Isabella.
But as I read more about her, I became fascinated with the fact that she used her eccentricity, not only to get what she wanted, but to get what she wanted for others, and perhaps even to shield herself from the society of the day. Several accounts talk about how the wealthy Bostonians snubbed her when Jack first brought her to the posh Back Bay neighborhood, and for years to come. It was only towards the turn of the century, when Isabella was in full swing constructing her museum, that the younger generation fell in love with her because of her quick wit and freedom to do whatever she wanted (see above: white head band at BSO concert. Seriously.)
And she used her influence—or infamousness—to jump start John Singer Sargent’s career, after he painted that startling portrait of her in black and pearls. (Which she loved, and her husband hated, as evidenced by his words in a letter: “It looks like hell, but looks like you.”) After her death, she left bequests to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children, Animal Rescue League, and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As well as endowing her museum and making it impossible to alter a single thing about the layout or pieces on display. (And also neglecting to insure the art. Which was painfully apparent when one of the largest art heists of all time took five Degas, a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, and a Manet—all uninsured.)
So I guess the conclusion is, if you’re rich, you can do what you want. You can nail a Sargent to the back of a writing desk and place a 17th century chair in front of it. But Isabella Gardner was a rebel, in her own way, and I tend to think that if you’re going to be an eccentric well-off person, opening a museum and using your craziness to help others—and allowing yourself the freedom to get over the snobby Boston societal shun—is probably the way to do it.
- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
~ My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
~ The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton