Monday, January 25, 2010

Being Present at the Brooklyn Museum

We missed the mega-fabulous New Year's First Night celebration at the Brooklyn Museum because of an equally fabulous yoga/health food/karaoke birthday party, a situation that reminded me of one of my favorite Yiddish expressions – “With one tuchis, you can’t dance at two weddings.”

Thrown together hastily, the birthday party was a perfect combo of holistic healthfulness and drunken revelry. Our adorable British hostess charmed us with "Super Trooper," "Lady Marmalade," "Ebony and Ivory," "We Belong Together," and other songs that I was evidently too plastered to recall, while I held my own with "Centerfold," "Alone Again, Naturally," "Tiny Dancer," and Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man," – the last song performed atop HOBB's lap while growling into the mike.

We arrived home after 3 in the morning, exhausted yet exhilarated.

It was great fun, yet with the light of day, I was beset by the hysterical fear that I would miss the photo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum I'd been dying to see for months -- Who Shot Rock & Roll?

You see, I knew that once the holiday ended, my life would take on its usual relentless pace and the chances of getting out to Brooklyn before the exhibition closed were slim. Though it sounds geographically implausible, I knew I had a better chance of making it over to Berlin than Brooklyn.

And indeed, that is exactly what happened. I left for Berlin on January 10th where I saw a great many museum exhibitions, but it was only yesterday that I made it to the Brooklyn Museum to finally see Who Shot Rock & Roll. And though I was gratified, gladdened and greatly relieved to finally be able to scratch this exhibition off my cultural To-Do List, what captured my imagination at the Brooklyn Museum was not this energetic assemblage of photos of rock stars and their performances.

Instead, it was a small black and white watercolor, based on a sculpture made by Harriet Hosmer, a remarkable 19th century artist. Created by Patricia Cronin, a Brooklyn artist of my own vintage, the watercolor depicts the interlocking hands of Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It was part of the exhibition closing that day, Harriet Hosmer: Lost and Found.

Having completed the rock and roll exhibition (my brain on joyous overload from ingesting pictures of a near-naked, Christ-like Iggy Pop, David Bowie with a red punk-shag 'do from his Ziggy Stardust phase, Elton John in platform boots and humongous glasses, the baby-faced Rolling Stones before they even signed a record contract, the famous Avedon portraits of the Beatles, Madonna in the early ‘80’s when she was a quasi-homeless East Village character, the underfed Talking Heads at CBGB’s and other such delights; my husband humoring me by pretending to be interested) HOBB and I wandered happily through the cavernous and largely empty rooms of the Brooklyn Museum, which recalled Berlin’s sprawling temples of culture.

Recalling a listing in the New York Times that Cronin’s exhibition was about to close, we headed down to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the third floor.

There, just around the corner from the legendary Judy Chicago work – The Dinner Party -- was Cronin’s exhibition, a tribute to the largely-forgotten art of Harriet Hosmer.

There is nothing quite like stumbling onto the work of a master one has not previously encountered. The joy of this discovery is indeed akin to embarking on a new adventure. And so, in this quiet room, on the last day of the exhibition, I avidly read about Harriet Hosmer’s life, learned that she was born in 1830 and died in 1908, lived in Rome for forty years, becoming part of the expatriate artist community; that she was a lesbian; that she sculpted in marble.

Listening to Cronin’s curate her own work on my cell-phone through some newfangled technical wizardry, I also learned that while in Italy, Hosmer became a close friend of the Brownings, whose literary partnership Cronin discusses briefly in the course of her shpiel. Cronin explains the placement of the hands and their symbolism; what the physical conveyed about the emotional, spiritual and artistic bond shared by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Which stopped me dead in my tracks, making me bookmark the Brownings for an upcoming obsession…when I conclude my current obsession with Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante.

It is now Monday afternoon. Between phone calls and emails, I found myself Googling the Brownings, giving myself a sneak peak at the literary couple who might next consume my imagination. (I like the way that Italy forms a perfect thematic segue between my current crushes and those in line for forthcoming consideration.) I realize that at this time last week, I had just landed in New York, leaving behind a madcap, frenetic weeklong adventure with Big Babe, my expatriate American son. During my time in Berlin, I observed and recorded the scene, as Hosmer did during her time in Rome. And while I was missing from my regularly-scheduled life in New York, the truth of that old Yiddish adage was further underscored.

With my one body, I couldn’t be on two continents at once, a source of frustration to those who wanted me to be on Eastern Standard Time in New York – stationed before a computer and next to a landline -- and not bopping through Berlin, with unreliable internet access.

Here’s the thing about life. You have one tuchis but many weddings to attend. Some are local, some are far-flung. Some are fun and others are obligatory. Some you will blow off; others you might miss due to unforeseen circumstances. Some conflict with each other…or with your happy little habits of living or with life itself.

And here’s a reality check: by choosing to attend one wedding, you choose to miss another. You give up one experience to gain another.

Of course, like most contemporary multi-tasking maniacs, I’ve tried to be at two…or three…or ten weddings with my one tuchis, in fact, this delusional modus operandi has characterized most of my professional adult life over the past eight years. Perhaps yours as well.

I’ve tried to behave as if sleep is optional to human functioning. I’ve tried to keep my BlackBerry activated in countries with ridonculous roaming charges to prove my commitment to those who wish to reach me all the time.

I’ve tried to obliterate boundaries of time and space through constant contact.

But we now know the truth about multi-tasking as a way of life, which is that a wee bit improves our productivity but if multi-tasking becomes standard operating procedure, the integrity of individual actions is severely compromised.

In other words, if we are always here and there, we are not really present anywhere.

So, I’m entering into a new contract with my tuchis because it is related to my heart, mind and soul.

From now on, it dances at one wedding at a time.

Flashback to the New Year's weekend. Initially, I tried to engineer a two-wedding solution to the evening, proposed going to the Brooklyn Museum and our friends’ party, catching two hours at the museum first, then meeting up with our friends at the Korean karaoke joint in midtown Manhattan.

The plan was actually doable – and didn’t entail meshuggeneh multi-tasking -- but HOBB doesn’t roll that way. He's a one-wedding guy.

Besides, he was looking forward to the yoga and health food.

I was frustrated at the time because my plan to dance at two weddings was being thwarted, but looking back, I am glad at the way it worked out.

After all, if we had gone to the Brooklyn Museum for New Year’s First Night, I would have likely missed the chance to discover the art of Harriet Hosmer, as interpreted by Patricia Cronin. Three weeks ago, I would have felt no urgency to see the exhibition, would have arrived with my First Night agenda -- dancing in the great hall with the live orchestra, standing on line to catch a glimpse of Who Shot Rock & Roll?, drinking in the spectacle of thousands of people filling the museum on a Saturday night.

Instead, on a Sunday afternoon in late January, I shared a unexpectedly magical and intimate moment with Patricia Cronin and Harriet Hosmer at the Brooklyn Museum.

Instead, I learned about the interlocking hands of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert Browning, was reminded of their love and literary partnership.

Locking hands with HOBB, my own partner in literature and life, I walked through the rare quiet rooms of the Brooklyn Museum, grateful to be doing just one thing at a time, to be fully present in my life, if only for a single Sunday afternoon in January.

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