Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chicago, Chicago

I've written about Chicago before, about my disastrous two month sojourn there in an ill-chosen psychiatry residency. It was awful, one of those embarrassing life episodes probably best left unmentioned, but it was more than that. My journal from that time is one long, complicated dissertation on existential anguish, an amalgam of inner states, cityscape, petulance and poetry with lake Michigan and the Chicago summer as backdrop.

But I was not led back to this era of my life by the thought of journals. God knows I have a million of them, tucked away in a cluttered closet. The thought of them repels me; most of the time I can't bear opening them. But thinking about my first marriage reminded me that I also had a visual record from the Chicago days that I hadn't revisited in years. I finally remembered that I had stashed them -- a sheaf of large, poster sized drawings -- behind a small bookcase in my study.

I had discovered, probably through my father, a wonderful drawing implement called Cray-Pas, or oil pastels, big, bright, unctuous crayons that went thickly onto paper with incredible vividness. I spent many hours in Chicago escaping from my misery by drawing. The colors, thirty years later, are just as bright as they were in the high white rooms I'd rented in a Hyde Park greystone a park's-view away from the lake.

Self portraits from that time show the standard me: bangs, glasses, midlength pageboy. And an expression of blankness tinged with curiosity, resignation and melancholy.

As in many of my drawings, the head is disproportionately big, like Greenland in a Mercator projection.

I'd rented a tiny apartment -- bedroom, living room, bathroom and a slit of a kitchen. The only visual artifact from it is a sketch of one of the windows in which I'd placed (is anyone surprised) some dead weeds and a sculpted head,

the same sculpted head that sits today at the top of our back stairs.

I was there to learn psychiatry. Instead, I developed a fascination with the program director's pocket handkerchiefs. They became some kind of emblem -- of detachment, of disregard, of imperiousness. Directed toward the patients, I thought, but really against me. Evenings, when I wasn't drawing or writing, I read abstruse existential analytic texts, the real outlands of Freud, and listened to the mournful horns of the oreboats (or, at least what I thought were the mournful horns of oreboats) from Lake Michigan.

I was probably as whacked out that summer as some of the people I was supposed to be helping. The whole endeavour terrified me. I was homesick, unprepared, unsupported, totally at a loss.

And I was working out a complicated, ambivalent relationship with the man who would become my first husband. He and I show up in various guises in many of the drawings. As does fruit, apples mainly, but other fruits as well. He was with me off and on in Chicago, and, according to my journal's grisly reports, this did nothing to simplify my sojourn. Yes, fruits,

fruits and knives, an old woman in a bed, and hands, fetishistically drawn, strangling,

a mammoth, buxom, pink and yellow amazon interposed between the man and the woman

culminating in an atrocious coupling/suicide. Looking at the badly drawn arm and the head-pointing gun, I scowl at the histrionics even as I try to look backward with compassion for an earlier, muddled self.

But there are peaceful images,as well: images of a desolate equilibrium. Empty landscapes,

with the merest gesture of season.

There are images that make no attempt at sublimation: Cray-Pas red is magnificent at rendering rage,

even murderous rage.

Then there are more self portraits. A naked, blue figure asleep facing a moonlit window, as if courting lunacy.

A red-robed woman gazing forlornly at a complicated, violent landscape under a sky full of giant fruit.

A baleful little child clutching a doll upon whom a grandfather gazes with mild concern

And the woman again, with strangers, gazing at a plant.

Then comes a series of table images: the woman, cradling her head in her arms beside an empty cup. It's dark out; the room is orderly, with lush, billowing, dark blue curtains, blossoming flowers and green door. The colors are rich. Her hand lies beside her, lovely, languid, relaxed, but the enormous eyes are bleak.

Another woman sits at a table. She's smoking; there is an empty cup in front of her, and another before an empty chair. Again, there is a plant, blooming lushly in the foreground. The woman gazes left, out of the frame of the picture, with a look of anxiety. For what or whom is she looking ?

Then the images disarticulate: there is a woman, floating on a blue ground, and a checkerboard tabletop off which a plate of fruit teeters

until the woman her self becomes the tabletop on which a cornucopia of fruit has spilled.

Finally, there is the strangest, most startling series of images -- unabashedly religious images, Biblical images, Christian images bubbling up out of Sunday School bedrock like oil in bright, primary colors. I look at them now, and they seem like postcards or desperate shipwrecked messages-in-a-bottle, sent to me by an earlier self struggling to arrive at or even envision the metaphysical space where I am today.

Maybe it was the oil pastel itself that inspired these images, lending itself so naturally to depicting stained glass.

It was, of course, the relationship that provoked the Adam and Eve drawings. I must have known that it was based on bad faith , in both the existentialist and religious sense of the phrase, maybe even on sin. There was a Freudian miasma that overhung my whole Chicago sojourn, a sour cloud engendering all the massive, blood-red apples and sinister phallic serpents of the drawings. It was a great schema into which to dump all my sexual and existential anxiety. There, I could keep it at bay, at arm's length. Leaving one hand free to pinch my nose.

In the first drawing Eve is awake, gazing at the snake. They seem to be in colloquoy, cooking something up. Adam dozes at her side, knee coyly covering his genital, his hands and feet are drawn fingerless and toeless like paddles: is he a castratus or and undeveloped fetus ? Eve and the snake are conspiring. Adam is napping.

In the second drawing Adam is wide awake, scowling, fully clothed, in the foreground. Eve stands, naked, dreamy-eyed and content, under a fruit-laden tree. They seem to be inhabiting different worlds -- Eve an oneiric, mythologic universe, Adam, a hard-edged, street-clothed reality. Timeless Freudian/Biblical miasma vs. Hyde Park, Chicago, 1978. This is an accurate trope for the disparate worlds Philip and I inhabited.

But poor Adam is defenseless against the merciless Cray-Pas. The snake encircles the afflicted pair; Eve seems to be both holding and holding off a monstrous apple, and Adam holds two anguished, empty hands in front of him, both fully, fetishistically digital now, one deployed like a fig leaf, the other simply, well, dangling there. Two hands, ten flaccid phalluses. The snake -- the one-eyed snake, no less -- is rampant, triumphant. It both encircles and towers over the pair, hermaphroditic.

No one ever eats the fruit in these pictures. But make no mistake about it. The fruit has been eaten and shared in secret. Fruit has been both stolen and freely given, fruit has been slipped between sleeping lips like poison, like the poison apple that brings sleep -- the sleep that suspends one in pre-adolescent innocence, the sleep can be dispelled only by a true love's kiss.

Neither of us were quite up to that.

The most shocking drawings have no thick overlay of Freud, and no stench of the self (as a group of personal essayists once memorably entitled a panel discussion they held at a local bookstore.) There is, simply, Christ. I can't for the life of me recapture any of what led me to draw Christ. Truly, there was nothing in my Chicago misadventure -- sordid and comic as it was -- that evoked the Passion. It must have been the thing-in-itself that drew me to it, this scandalously particular event that, at the time, I had so much trouble fathoming. I remember poring over the Bible in high school, trying to get the eschatology straight. Never mind the Resurrection, which was baffling but relatively straightforward, what was this Second Coming thing ? I remember fretting over bodies in graves, bodies coming out of graves, Christ going up, Christ coming down again, all very literal, geometric and maddeningly confusing.

In my drawing, Christ, looking tired and vaguely peevish, hangs from the cross without nails. A half-moon shines in the darkened sky; the branch of an oak tree enters the drawing from the right. In the distance lies a city in the desert. A blue clad woman -- Mary ? -- looks on in distress; a soldier with a crimson cock's-comb on his helmet gazes quasi-erotically at Christ's feet.

In the next drawing the sun has returned; Christ's eyes uproll, probably in death. Again, there are no wounds. The sky is a fine. Marian blue and the ground is green

Finally, there is a Pieta: five women hold a long, lifeless orange body. Behind them, sunflowers reach heavenward. If I could not fathom eschatology, I could still imagine a mother's love, a mother's helpless grief.

And, apparantly, a father's harshness: in the next drawing, Abraham leads Isaac into the mountains. The story horrified me then and it horrifies me today. Was there some resonance with my own family constellation in these images ? A powerful, father, a distant, passive mother: these were certainly themes in my own psychoanalysis,

but another drawing depicts a preoccupied, depressed appearing man from whom an enormous, naked pink baby hangs

and yet another depicts an infant asleep on a bed inscribed "Mater Noster" while mother herself, naked and hairless, bristles in an electric rainbow of anxiety and stares warily out of the frame of the drawing.

So which was it, Sigmund ?

My life then and thereafter was one interminable Advent. Desert sands would sift back over whatever highway I managed to build, and thorny tangles would quickly overgrow any path I'd managed to bushwhack through my inner wilderness. And yet, apparantly, something in the confusing parables and eschatologies of my religious miseducation had stuck, and taken root.

I was unable to keep watch with Christ. I drew him, threw him up on a Cray Pas cross and stowed him for a quarter century behind a bookcase. But He was still watching over me. And when I could finally surface from the muck and mire of my ordinary, contingent life, there He was, arms open, waiting, welcoming, forgiving.

This final drawing is prescient. It depicts a solitary, androgynous figure climbing a ladder. Above her a sun blazes in an empty sky. Below her is a city in a desert plain, Civitas Dei, or, City of God, according to the banner that waves above it. It's not a very inviting looking city, perched on a cracked rock foundation, surrounded by barbed wire, bristling with dangerous appearing towers. It looks more like a prison than a city, and yet it is the City of God. Was I, the artist as a young woman, being ironic ?

The figure on the ladder is looking down, as if rethinking her upward trajectory. As if the apophatophilic quibble of not being able to discover Jesus Christ in the wordless silence of a glorious sunset or a magnificent forest (where one could certainly discover God the Creator) were losing its power over her. Instead, something else seems to be calling her, something down there in the prickly, narrow, miscreant-ridden byways of Civitas Dei, down there where the inns are always full and oligarchs are always demanding their due, down there where muddled men and women try and fail and try again to negotiate the thickets of their lives,

down there, down here, where God enters history as Logos, as Redeemer, as Exemplar, as Savior and where a wind called Spirit sweeps through the littered streets raising dust and trash, clearing the way and clearing the air, making way for something that is always and ever new.

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