Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman
This morning I saw a spider crawl onto the windowsill. I slowly removed my slipper, gave it a whack. And immediately I felt regret. Why did I do that? My fear was the bug would find its way into my bed and bite me, and I might get a severe allergic reaction—or at a minimum feel a nasty sting. Then I thought, so what? Am I so self-absorbed that I fail to honor the value of all life?
Trivial, isn't it? But that's what occupies my thoughts in this cell. All right, it's not a cell, it's a small room with a bed, a table, a chair. But the door is locked and a heavy wire mesh screen covers the window. I may not leave.
In one of our sessions I tried to explain to Dr. John the meaning of "matrika shakti," a philosophy from northern India. It speaks of the illusion we create with language, the powerful web of words with which we weave the fabric of our "reality." As I spoke so earnestly, Dr. John nodded, and he made a steeple with his fingers and rested his chin upon it.
At that moment I thought, like the god he feels he is, Dr. John creates an edifice celebrating his omnipotence. But Dr. John does not see this because, being a psychiatrist, he suffers no delusions. I am the one with delusions, thus only I see it.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and do not recognize myself. I gaze at my face and body, know it is my own, but feel separate from it. I don't know if this is a sign of yogic detachment or emotional unbalance.
Dr. John believes in cause and effect. Every effect must have a cause. Therefore he quizzes me closely about my father, about my lovers, my three years of study in India. He wants to know everything.
All right. My father died in 1981. He was obese, drank heavily, chain-smoked, and never exercised. It took me a long time to build an acceptance of my own sense of physicality. I have never been able to date men who are overweight because of my strong aversion to the pain and tedium associated with weight problems.
My father grew up in a poor Orthodox family, attended yeshiva for a while, and then decided to become a businessman. He started several companies, was successful in some of them. He valued money above all because he hated the poverty and hunger he grew up with in Poland. We lived for a while in London, in a dream world he created. He tried to play the role of a wealthy and refined man, but all he had in that equation was the money. He rarely sat down and talked to us. This made me very lonely for many years.
As much as my father valued money, my mother valued love. She told me when your love for another is authentic, you will find it easy to accept the inevitable end of the relationship. Because after all, true love means putting the other's desires ahead of your own. She said there's a strange satisfaction in that.
I tell Dr. John, I don't want to answer any more of your questions right now. Maybe later. Also, I think sometimes focusing too much on the past is not productive. And I don't want to say things I might later regret. Silence is wonderful. There is so much to learn from silence, don't you think?
Dr. John nods. Indeed, he says. But, Rebecca, we are here to talk. Aren't we?
Yes, I reply, but isn't it also true that what happens to us is often incidental? I think of the experiences I have had, and they are only memories, and I feel as if they have happened to someone else.
Dr. John sought more from me. So I told him about meeting Harry in Central Park a few years ago. I followed the music to a crowd. I pushed my way through. He was playing a Jamacian melody on a steel drum. His smile was white, his skin brown. He wore a red baseball cap and sunglasses. I knew he was staring at me. I felt his gaze although I could not actually see it. He wore cut-off bluejeans, leather sandals. His bare chest and arms were nut-brown and muscular. A single yellow bead hung from a leather necklace. A white T-shirt hung from his back pocket. I could not help myself; I danced to the music he played. That made him smile.
I felt very comfortable being near Harry, and I don't know why. I didn't care about all the people who watched him playing for me as I danced. When he was through playing, we went to a bar in the East Village. It was dark and smoky and crowded with young people. He still wore his red cap and glasses, and he spoke in a rambling, disjointed way. I had to help him walk the few blocks to my apartment.
When he finally took off his dark glasses, his blue eyes reminded me of something very ancient. He said he always kept his eyes covered because they were sensitive to the light. There were tiny wrinkles around his eyes, and his skin was soft and brown, like a deer. He said, "I am a deer lost in the forest."
Naked in the dimness of early morning, Harry danced for me like a mad Shiva. His arms moved slowly in a wide arc. He swayed his body and his arms, and his fingers twirled like a magician, as if trying to entrance me. And I was entranced. When he left, he took my number and left his T-shirt behind. I held it and smelled his odor. I was happy when he called later in the week.
I told Harry about the voices I heard and about the moon changing colors and moving violently in the sky. I was serious and afraid, but he laughed and gave me weed and rum. And he said I should build up my strength with weights and long walks. I wobbled when I got up after sex, because of a weakness and trembling in my legs.
He told me about all the women he had slept with, some of them very wealthy women from the East Side. I did not want to hear of his past. But he was proud of it. Many times he said he would come to my apartment early in the evening, but then he wouldn't arrive until five in the morning, and then he'd sleep off whatever he had been taking. When he was high, he frightened me. Later I realized I had been afraid of my illness, not of him. One day he said he was going back home to Jamacia.
After a month I knew he would never return. His abandonment made me hollow. My Guru said difficulties are a gift. They are to be overcome—or used. I therefore began a large oil painting of Harry from memory. I had the idea I would make it in the manner of a Tibetan thangka. An iconographic image with a rainbow of colors signifying the renewal of form, feelings, perceptions. Colors are central; they are the key. They are symbolic of the transformation of defilements into wisdom.
The white of Harry's T-shirt represented ignorance transformed into panoramic awareness. The yellow of his hanging bead was pride and stinginess transformed into even-mindedness. The red of his baseball cap was desire, lust, and craving transformed into discriminating awareness. The blue of his eyes was anger transformed into mirror-like wisdom.
Sat Sri Akal. May the truth be exalted. Truth is imperial.
As I was finishing my painting of Harry, I met a man I instantly loved. Strange, but I do not remember his name. Nor what he looked like. But I will always love him more than anyone.
Your painting of Harry, my new love said softly, is a vivid metaphor of your illness. And the illness itself is the great question of what is reality and what is merely a dream. We can see your Harry for what he is—the vagabond, the itinerant, the rogue. We know he will break your heart, even though you might have seen it coming from the beginning. Too often we allow these people to perform their magical spells on us because we need to live dangerously—at least for a while.
But it's not magic, my love said. It's merely drunkenness, intoxication, which at its core is not an affirmation of life but instead its avoidance. Harry is only a charlatan with an enticing promise, meant to dazzle. He is so fully aware of the effect he has on you. But at the same time he is unaware of what controls him.
My love said, You feared his lack of discipline. Which means you fear your own loss of discipline. But your painting shows a superb control, a capacity to absorb significant experience and then recast it into a new form. It then becomes not merely an autobiographical utterance but instead the creation of a new, more palatable reality. Transmutation, he said. Alchemy! And this is precisely what we must do as artists. There is no other way.
My love knew I paint because I wish to convey the suffering of the world and perhaps a part of my own. The six million, for instance. Other less unpleasant things. Like my moving moon, my voices. Flowers. Oh, yes, flowers. I did a meticulously rendered painting inspired by Caravaggio's "Calling of St. Matthew." Chiaroscuro. Rich color. The light against the darkness.
I know there is no meaning to any of it. But as an artist I am required to create meaning. I know that involves putting form ahead of content, since the arrangement of objects into a pattern implies meaning—even if none exists. Suffering is a repeating pattern. A design. So is joy.
So what happened to your love? Dr. John asks.
Perhaps he was merely an incidental thing, I reply. Perhaps he did not exist.
I remember a Friday night when I was 20, after Shabbos dinner. I went alone to services at the synagogue. It was raining, and hardly anyone was there. The melodies of the prayers were like a spell. Gradually I felt myself consumed, taken over. I swayed in the soft embrace of the singing voices.
After a while I stood in darkness. Suddenly, the space above me opened up, and a rain of flowers fell gently on my head. Rose-tinted lily petals, sweet and fragrant. A cascade of softness. I knew it was a sacred gift. Later, I learned a rain of flowers is a direct experience of the scriptures.
I wept. Like St. Matthew, I longed for a calling. Please, father. Call me.