I had glanced in the guidebook about Pompeii, and mostly what I remembered was that it was supposed to be fairly large and that Herculeum was a more satisfying experience. Everyone in my travel entourage wanted to go to Pompeii because who the hell has heard of Herculeum and I didn’t want to try to persuade them to try Herculeum instead, so we went to Pompeii.

Getting there from Naples was a trip through Hades. If you have never been to Italy, think of the New York in the ’80s and you’ll have an approximation. You know: noisy, crowded, bad signage, graffiti everywhere, nothing running on time, gruff people (who are occasionally very friendly). The train was stuffed with people and I had to stand for almost the entire 45-minute ride, cheek-to-jowl with tourists and locals.

There was no clear signage to the entrance, so we walked about 200 meters to the exit, only to be told to go away by the unfriendly carbonieri. T. and I met up with some Spanish tourists who thought we could get in the exit if we showed our tickets but basically said we had to go back to the beginning and find the entrance. They told us this in Spanish; I kept wondering why I couldn’t understand their Italian at all.

Mind you, we had a map but in typical Italian style there  was nothing indicating where the entrance was on it. (Also on the map were numbers corresponding to different features of Pompeii, but it turned out these didn’t correlate to anything in reality. This, and other similar experiences, led E. and I to start using the phrase “Everything’s normal” instead of  “This is so crazy” since SNAFUs are the norm in navigating Italy).

We got in and the place was huge. I thought, well of course, it’s an entire city. I mean, and ENTIRE CITY: ampitheatres, temples, all the houses of 20,000 residents which was its population at its peak. We wandered around for ten minutes and still had no idea where we were on the map. I found a friendly guard and asked him, he pointed to a spot on the map, and finally we had our bearings.

For a long time, we just saw house after house. They were really more like townhomes, as they all shared walls. This went on for a long time and I began to worry that this was all I would see. We were trying to navigate to Garden of the Fugitives where the casts of the escaping people are, but it was slow going.  That was kind of weird: wanting to see people frozen in their last moments, something fairly gruesome.

Finally we came upon frescoes and mosaics, and Pompeii started to come to life for me. I could start to imagine how people looked and lived. They were people, just like me, just living their lives.

At some point I was looking in a room which had a fresco with Egyptian motifs. How fascinating: that just as now, people chose to decorate with themes of vanishing or vanished civilizations. A British guy was standing next to me and said, “Look at that! It’s archeology of archeology! I don’t even know what to think about it!”, to which I agreed. He then said, “I’m looking at these rooms and thinking, maybe someday thousands of years from now someone could be looking at my room. It gives me the chills!” to which I also agreed, although I seriously doubt humans will exist in 2,000 years.

I very much enjoyed that exchange because it was fairly amazing that someone unlike me in many ways was having a very similar experience. That is, we felt the humanity in this place and how it echoed our own. I felt a great tenderness towards these long ago people, and then it extended to the other visitors around me, and then to everyone, whatever my concept of that is.

I have these moments of universal compassion from time to time, but they are rare and don’t last very long. I am very appreciative when I can experience them.

Visiting Pompeii was very exhausting, so I could not rally myself to go to Mount Vesuvius the next day as planned. I’m sure it would’ve been amazing, but it would have meant getting on that same train and I just couldn’t bear it. Instead E. and I ended up at the Museo Nazionale, which was filled with objects from Pompeii. I realized this is why there wasn’t much in Pompeii, but was also perplexed as objects from the Colosseum were supposed to be there as well but were not.

The museum had beautiful glassware and ceramics, more frescos and mosaics, surgical instruments, items in silver, and of course the Secret Room of erotic art. Overall, it seemed like life in Pompeii was much like my life, minus the electronics and rushing about. I thought about that British guy, someone who I would only have one conversation with in my life; how I would only see Pompeii and its artifacts this one time; that these thoughts I had about it would be lost after I die, just like the thoughts of the Pompeii people buried in ash.

 

I’m in Rome. I’ve been here for several days. I thought the minute I was on vacation my mood would improve but this was not the case. My mood didn’t really start improving until the fourth day. We were in a castle — yes, a real castle (Castel Sant’angelo) — and there was just something about the frescoes and statues that was so amazing that it just, for lack of a better phrase, blew my mind. The statue of Sant’angelo itself, huge and looming, on the top of the castle had such a presence that I was completely engrossed with it.  Somehow that gigantic figure of an avenging angel towering over me affected me in a strangely positive way.

I’ve never been the kind of person who thinks that art can change lives or that it is of dire importance in the world. I’ve never thought it is as important as say mental health services or mission-driven organizations that are helping the world. And yet. Something happened to me on the roof of the castle that couldn’t have happened anywhere but there. It changed me from the inside, and for the better.

It’s interesting for me to consider this as an artist. My art has a profound effect on me, but seems to not have such a profound effect on anyone else. Some people like it very much, but it doesn’t have this effect that I am describing very poorly — this feeling that something essential to their being is changed forever by seeing a particular image.  And of course, for most people my art doesn’t effect them at all. It’s been a while since I’ve seen art that affected me as much as the images I create.

The next day I went to Palazzo Barberini and had more moments of profoundity. I don’t know how else to describe it. There was one magnificent huge room with a 50 foot ceiling. It had gold flecked wallpaper and nothing in it. I felt overwhelmed in that room by another indescribable sensation. Then I went to an adjoining room that was all white marble — the floor, the statues, the ceilings. Through the doorways I could see the giant gold room. I stood there in awe. I felt like I had been there before, that I had always been in that room, looking at that magnificent expanse.  That somehow this palace in Rome was my place, it was mine.

Twenty-five years ago I came to Italy in a state of depression so deep that I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed, and left the country with a small hope that I could and would get better. I’m not nearly as depressed as that, but I am suffering from a lost of identity and feeling of complete pointlessness about my existence. When I first came here and looked at those ruins I thought: there, in that rubble, people just like me lived and died. No one remembers their name, who they were, who they loved. They are completely gone, as if they never existed. One day that will be me.

Now another thought is coming to me: but they lived. Even if they leave no trace, even if I leave no trace, I got to be here through all the wonders and tragedies of life.

The last time I saw art that affected me deeply was also in Italy, on that same trips twenty-five years ago,  at the Uffizi looking a Botticelli’s Primavera. I had seen that image reproduced many times in my life, and have since, but the actual painting was so beautiful it literally made me cry. That is the only time that has ever happened to me in my life.

I fall in love with every country I vacation in. Up until now, I thought it was because I am relaxed, free of responsibilities and worries, and not working.  Before this trip, I was barely working so the feeling of “Hurray! I’m free from my stupid job!” never happened. In any case, I have a new theory about this love. What I love are these moments of awe. Seeing something intensely beautiful for the first time opens, for a brief moment, a sense of timelessness and transcendence that is the very meaning of being alive.

I was driving around, listening to KALX radio. There was a song by Kid Tsunami playing. It was a very pleasant song about a young rapper coming across an OG who can “spit the best verse I ever heard”. The song continues,

“People on they way to work start to crowd around
We can’t believe how this old man spittin’ fire”

I’m thinking, how nice to respect the old folks. I respect the old folks, too. Then came the lyric,

“He said I graduated high school in ’84”

Uh… what? The “old man” in the song is a year younger than me?

vomit symbol

My god! What have I become!

{A pitch black stage with two people, at either end of the stage, facing each other, under spotlights}

Me:  I am a penny that someone dropped, and no one picks is up off the sidewalk because it’s worthless.
I am a piece of yellowed newspaper, swirling in the air at the end of an alley.
I am these things because nothing about me is natural anymore, or valued.

You: How can you say these things when I love you?

Me: Do you think your love has the power to change my worthlessness into something noble?

You: I love you so much.

Me: Then you believe this? That your love can transmute me?

You: Yes, I do.

Me: Then why haven’t you done it yet?

You: What do you mean?

Me: I mean, do it already! Come find me. I fell through a sewer grating and am down there in the muck.

You: Which grating? There are thousands in this city! Where should I look?

Me: Good luck.

{lights out}

End of Play.

I’ve been fairly disoriented since my return home from New York. There’s something inside me that seems fundamentally different, but after almost a week of pondering I still can’t quite pinpoint what it is or how it feels. New York changed something in me, something yet to be determined or discovered.

One thing I have noted is the transition from the nature-dominated Bay Area to the very urban environment of NYC and back again causes me to feel very different about myself. Here at home, where I walk on a trail almost daily and at the minimum weekly, I am very attuned to my animal nature. In fact, I’m sure I’ve written about this before somewhere, but sometimes I feel convinced that I am an animal just playing at being a human. Somehow I got stuck inside a human body so I fake my way through civilization convincing others of my humanness but not myself.

I didn’t feel that way in New York. I felt very human.  I enjoyed all the clever human-made things: subway trains, the entire subway system, architecture, art. I wanted to be inside, I felt a call to interiors of buildings. I felt as if I was curling up inside myself, not in a bad way but in a cozy way. I really forgot my wildness.

When I returned and got my first glance of the serpentine prairie, I was amazed how the beauty didn’t jump out at me. I had gotten so used to looking at art — I spent hours and hours in art museums over the last two weeks — that nature seems monochromatic and dull for a moment. Then I started walking. It wasn’t long before a feeling came over me. It was a feeling of aliveness, of life bursting out all around me in every blade of grass, every rock, every tree, in the air. That tingling, awesome feeling only happens to me in nature. Once I felt that, I saw the beauty again of the surroundings, and I felt the animal side of me awaken.

I am amazed at how completely who I feel I am is so mutable and so influenced by my environment.

Today I came home to California. There was a clear blue sky, bright sunshine, and lush greenery. And somehow I missed New York. Go figure.

crane At the riverfront in Long Island City

At the riverfront in Long Island City

DSCN8681

A tree in Central Park on xmas day.

Again, I’m not actually writing this in New York but on the train from Boston to New York. Being on the train and having so much time with nothing really to do is great. I just spent some time reading through all my old posts that were written in the month of December (which it is now) since 2008.  One that I wrote last year gave me pause. I realized that I have successfully relinquished the thought that I should have more of a formed idea of how my life should go and have accepted that I am evolving. In other words I’ve managed to stop judging myself, at least on this one issue. I’ve also managed to accept that there will be many more changes ahead inside myself.

I’m strangely eager to get back to New York to have my two more days there. It was great to see all the family and good friends in Massachusetts, but because of the former I was sometimes uncomfortable or angry. I’ve had so few negative emotions in my time in New York that I feel like I am fleeing to a life raft.  It is so crazy that on this trip New York has come to symbolize a cozy, safe place that I am loathe to leave. And yet, in two days, I will. Leave, that is.

Dogon mask at the Met

Dogon mask at the Met. Cuz shit be hella cool.

I’m not actually in New York at the moment. I’m on the train to Boston. I’m passing through Connecticut along the shore and can see Long Island Sound. I’m getting that creeped-out feeling I get whenever I’m in Connecticut. There’s something about the buildings and landscape that makes me feeling really uncomfortable, especially on a gray day like today.

(A tangent: more and more I see folks spelling “gray” as “grey”. I guess the British have won).

The time for me to return home is getting closer. That is causing me a certain uneasiness. I have to start thinking again about making a living. I have to figure out my messy personal life. I have to figure out my mind and my emotions. And how to spend my time. That’s all a lot of analysis and pondering. I have been doing some pondering while away, but I feel that whatever ideas I have thought of on the East Coast may or may not translate on the West. I have to go home to find out how I really feel about things.

Also, I have to find a way to go see more art. I never make time to do this and it’s been really wonderful while I’ve been in New York.

Yesterday I was telling Cousin M., Cousin D.’s sister who is nothing like her, about how crowded it was at the Met on Christmas Eve. She said, isn’t it great how much people here care about Culture?”

Well, like pretty much everything Cousin M. says, I have a problem with that statement. I really dislike the word “Culture” to describe the arts. It’s so fucking snooty. I dislike artifices that make art or dance or poetry seem elitist. That’s probably because in general I hate elitism.

When I was at the Met that day, I didn’t get the feeling that these people were there to “experience culture”. The Met is pay what you want, so you can go even if you pay 1¢. I really got the feeling that people were there because they liked seeing cool stuff. Most people enjoy seeing cool stuff. It doesn’t take education or a degree to enjoy the many things at the Met.

So, unlike the subway you have to take to get there, the Met is pretty fucking democratic.

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