Friday, July 30, 2010

Confessions of a mummy mover


They came to us with names they were given. Some came wearing clothing, a suit, a soldier’s uniform, a lace gown. Some wore only socks or shoes. Some were old. Others were infants. We gave them their personae, based on guesswork, and the prerogatives of our work at the Detroit Science Center: to create a national touring exhibit celebrating their history, science and culture.

There was Rosi, the beautiful, and Lulu, the gossip. There were the Miners. And Roberto and Gloria, who once lived in a hacienda. There was sweet little Magnolia, and tall Simon . . . Sarita, Ara, Mima, the dancers and singers, and the “Toothless One,” and the one with magical powers they call La Bruja, the Witch. Altogether they numbered 36. An astonishing 36 mummies, never seen before outside of Mexico, from an old mining town called Guanajuato.

Freaks of nature. “Accidental mummies” we call them -- meaning they were not wrapped in linen, embalmed or preserved in any way. These were ordinary people who had been laid to rest in a municipal cemetary, and by circumstance of desert air and placement in airtight crypts, their bodies dehydrated - rather than decayed.

Like raisins in the sun. Like leaves fallen from a tree.

The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato on exhibit at the Detroit Science Center (soon to move to another venue) are on loan from the collection of 119 mummies in El Museo de las Momias, where more than a half million people visit each year. Their story has become something of lore - a series of curious bodies exhumed from the walls of the tombs between the years 1865-1958, removed as relatives failed to pay a grave tax of 50 pecos or so. The mummies were collected in the basement of the cemetary ossuary, where caretakers started to charge admission to a steady stream of gawkers early in the 1900’s. Today the mummies peacefully reside in a sleek museum, a central attraction, where visitors are greeted with kitch and candy skeletons and the words:

“Do not be afraid. They are only cocoons. The butterflies have flown away.”

Past the shock - the ick factor - of seeing your first mummy is a startling recognition of an individual, once living and breathing. Just like you. At closer look at hands and sinews, fingers and toes, empty eye sockets and gaping mouth, you get the eeriest sensation that even in death there’s energy still in the body. Who was this person? How did they live, and how did they die? What secrets are written in their bones?

Do I sound obsessed, haunted, morbid, slightly mad? Hard as it is for me to believe in retrospect, last summer I spent almost every waking hour thinking about mummies, researching mummies, photographing mummies, even moving them. (Creeping out my family and colleagues.) Not so much by choice, but by some sense of productivity. In my mind, working on this exhibit was a once-in-a-life opportunity to help build something unique and extraordinary. My particular assignment was to create the content for a forensic science lab, a gallery where visitors would explore the methodologies used in mummy study. Whoah, I’m no scientist, but by default I took up the role of “curator” of sorts, investigator set loose on the assignment, consulting with experts in the field -- anthropologists, radiologists and foresic scientists who had spent years studying our collection -- all too happy to oblige us in providing new radiographic, endoscopic, and CT studies for the purpose of our exhibit displays. Heady stuff!

Turns out, mummies are great teachers. Studying them. Imagining them as they lived, looking after them, and weirdly “caring” for them, can be oddly peaceful--almost sacred work. Like tending a garden in some long forgotten past, talking to ghosts.

Was there a deal struck with the devil to bring the mummies of Guanajuato to Detroit? No doubt there were plans to make a profit, if not a killing at the gate. Is our beautiful exhibit, “celebrating the life and lore and culture” of Mexico, “for real?” As a dreamer-catcher and writer in the transaction, I am but an instrument playing to the audience, guilty as charged for being unaware or insenstivie to the machinations or the process that put the living dead in lit cabinets in their present state of stalemate. The fate of our mummies on tour has yet to be sealed. Their next destination is unknown. Could there be a more existential state of affairs? 36 lost souls with no place to go, but back to their homeland, back to their graves.

As the curator of the museum in Mexico warned us, knowing mummies can get under your skin. They are still people. Not museum artifacts. Call it respect. Reverence. Empathy. A human connection. I will miss their gentle faces, astonished, agonized, ravaged, moth-eaten, and grisly as they seem to others, they have become strangely familiar to me. And though I've never heard a peep out of any one of them, there were those among the staff that thought they did. There were those who said blessings every time they entered the gallery. And there’s Maria, the shopkeeper who operated the gallery store filled with beautiful Mexican crafts and art objects - she swears she returned after closing one evening to retrieve some items when she heard whistling -- long, lost strains of an old Mexican tune -- a lullaby, out of nowhere.

About accidental mummies some things just can’t be explained.

Sherpa: AWOL.

Hey, Gang.

It's me.  I've been getting the occasional question about what week we're in.  No clue.  Really.  None.  I'd place me at Week Six and holding.  We should place the Vivster on a pedestal for keepin' on keepin' on. 

Okay, I checked the Mayan calendar and they say.... Wow! Did you know that in 2012.... Oh.  Sorry.  Let's cross that bridge some other day.  Now I checked the Mac Calendar and it seems to suggest that the week we are at the end of is Week 12.  My. My.  What's up with that?

I lost my place about three weeks ago when we had a round of illness that eventually touched everyone but the cat.  Nothing big but very disruptive and unpleasant for the participants.  Kind of like a Monday in daycare, if you get my drift.  Who knew that there's a virus named after Norwalk, OH?  And who knew your kid could still get strep at 31???  Oh, it was like old times.  All I can say is don't come 'round here lookin' for chicken broth.  We are plumb out.

Something else happened, too.  I rediscovered weeding.   That's what the photo is about.  Me in the garden with a large cup of coffee, just moving slow and soaking up the motherly vibe of Ms. Nature.  Here's a secret which my great grandmother knew:  the mornings are cool and quiet.  In my garden you can hear the birdies.  You can see them also, if you look.  Swallows skim over like grace on steroids.  You can hear waves from Canada and traffic from Cleveland and trains from somewhere going somewhere else and making that fabulous train-goin' woo woo sound.   

The weeds are passive resisters in the morning dew.  They lie low and come up easy.  Progress can be made.  The mind rests.  In a garden this big, you have to give up the idea of Being Done.  So, I've been going slow.  Brushing the dirt and leaves off stones, revealing their uniqueness. Blessing Curtis for laying them down in the first place. 

I notice that somewhere along the way, I have stopped caring if there there are critters.  I don't worry about snakes.  I don't mind spiders.  I feel affection for potato bugs -- they worry about me, though. 

Where am I going with this?  Almost nowhere.  Except: the garden has been my morning pages the last few weeks.  I have given myself over to mindless musing about earth and sky, birdsong and bug buzz, this and that. 

Which is a pretty way of saying that I broke my word. 

I said I would do it and I didn't.  I promised myself I would do pages, artist dates, exercises and instead I ran right off the rails.  How about you?  It is a very, very good thing to say, out loud even, how you did with your promises.  Because here's the deal.  The difference between doing what you said you would do and not doing what you said you would is not the difference between Good You and Bad You.  Really. 

The difference between doing what you said you would do and not doing what you said you would lies in the the gap between what is done and what is not.  For me, that gap contains morning pages, the boring and the uplifting, artist dates that might have been thrilling, might have been a bust.  Exercises that might have opened my eyes or passed right over my head, trailing yawns instead of glory.  Insights. Agent queries.  New words laid down.  Fresh ideas.  Or not.

It's the road not taken.  That's all.  But the fact that it was a road I promised to take makes it a problem for me. As a practical, housekeeping, orderly kind of thing, it's better to keep your word than to break it.  It makes it easier to figure out who you are if you are consistently who you say you are. 

Likewise, it is a healthy and healing thing to say you broke your word if that's what you did.  And that's exactly what I did.

So, now that I, Sherpa Annie, am back on the path of posting, I am here to hear from you.  Send me an email.  Drop us a post.  Call me on the primitive device we humans name "phone."  This is the end of the Artist's Way that began back on May 10th.  Where are you?  What have you seen?  How are you doing?  Are you done?  Are you beginning afresh?  Are you starting for the first time?  What's up?

As for me, I'm still weeding. I declare my promise broken, but my spirit strong.  When I get ready to do the next non-weeding thing, I'll post my new promise.  My promises are excellent.  They kick my fanny and keep me going.  Sometimes I let  them down.  That is the human being part.  Sometimes they lift me up.  That is also the human being part. 

Let us love ourselves, our paths, and each other.

Now where did I leave my coffee cup.....


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

MI Way

Those Michigan sunsets, especially after a summer rainfall: pure magic.

What looks like a long and winding road is just my street in a subdivision of Northville, on the cusp of Wayne and Oakland County, 15 minutes east of Ann Arbor. An ordinary suburban neighborhood, refreshed through the lens of the camera. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. And so it goes.

The dog-eared page in my journal suggests we might find ourselves in “Chapter 11” of The Artist’s Way -- as appropriate a place as any to consider creative inventory and bankruptcy. Moving on, moving forward. “This week we focus on artistic autonomy,” proclaims the intro.

So. Make festive plans. Play. Explore. Travel. Write. Ride. Even on ordinary and lonely roads, there’s discovery.

Below, a quick thought, grabbed haphazardly from the marginalia of the Cameron text, a quote from Norma Jean Harris (googled Norma Jean, and no, I have no clue as to who she actually is, but here are her words for the day)

"Art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes it visible. The moon develops creativity as chemicals develop photographic images."

Heading to the Ann Arbor Art Festival this weekend (Thursday thru Saturday) - my annual pilgrimage for photography, glass flowerworks, and ceramics. Anyone coming my way??

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Not my photo . . . as I pedaled on a 40- mile bike trek (on a Trek bike) west of Ann Arbor last Saturday morning in “One Helluva Ride” from the Chelsea Fairground through rolling MI farmland, (time in the saddle 3 hours and 15 minutes), I was happy to land without harm.

Meanwhile, downtown in the D -- a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet crew got permission for a low-level demonstration flight, as part of the ceremony for a speed boat race on the Detroit River.

This is what sunmer looks like, for Motor City residents. Surreal.

And no, the fighter jet did not land.

Just a fly-bye for A-wayers, here, or out of site. Wherever you may be.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Loving Pema Chodron

Love is a pretty big word.  And we no doubt make it small by applying it to things like chocolate.  (I don't actually believe this. I put it in there to raise my righteousness quotient.  Chocolate is an elevation of love.  We just don't like to admit it.)  Oh, anyway.  Love is good.  Let's go ahead and spread it around, even on the trivial.

Pema, though, Pema is not trivial.

Here's why I love Pema though we've never met and likely never will. 

The other day I was agitated to a degree I almost never achieve.  Anxious.  Unstrung.  The physical experience was not unrelated to pure, curled-up, 'possum-in-the-headlights panic. The encouraging things I usually say to myself when I feel like that (Shut up, Ann, you dope.  Sit down.  Chill out.) were not working.  So, I figured:  Go to the grocery store, Ann.  That will fix you right up.  Silly moi.

So semi-fear-frozen in my car, I remembered that in my iPhone I had a brand new recording of a retreat Pema Chodron led on The Three Commitments at Gampo Abbey. (Doesn't that sound so lovely and calm?  I don't think it really is.  At least not all the time.  People are there.  Enough said.)  So I found it (Woo!  It had downloaded.  Technology works sometimes.) 

Right off the bat, Pema started talking about the essential groundlessness of the human experience.  And death, of course.  You'd think this would have been the straw that drove me right off the road.  But no.  The Truth, the Real Truth, can be da balm.  Even if the real truth is "Change Happens." Even when the change that happens is not that cool, uplifting Obama Change we still believe in. ( I do. I do.  You go, Mr. President.)   Even if the real truth is "Death Happens."  Because it appears that is so.

Pema also holds out the interesting idea that emotions and states of mind clock in at about 1 1/2 minutes per :-) :-( .... :-) :-(   That's us there to the left of this sentence.  Happy. Sad. Worried. Crazy. Cheered.  Pissed.  All over the place.  And, listening there in my car, I noticed that, oops, the unstrungness that I was so INTERESTED in, had crept away without even saying hasta la vista, Annie. 

My interpretation of some Pema advice I've encountered from time to time is that if you approach every moment and its mood or its thoughts with a spirit of gentle curiosity -- if you don't try to push it away or shut it down or exchange it for a mood or a thought you might prefer, you can do this sort of surfing thing.  You can ride the present moments, the very NOWs of your life, staying awake, not being in a war with whatever's there, tending to your balance, being kinder than is my innate nature....  If you can do this, you can then experience it All.*

And, in this moment of calm reflection -- which, as noted, is now and not necessarily a minute and a half from now -- I ask myself what better could we reasonably hope for in a world of change and inevitable death than to experience our lives moment by moment?  To live while we're alive.

This is probably the most ridiculous interpretation of Pema's teachings ever, ever, ever in the world.  However, one of the things I love about her is her generosity and compassion for those who try.

Thanks, Pema.  Love you,  XOXOXO Annie

*An important corollary, which I also believe Pema would agree with, is that when you find yourself UNDER your Surfboard of Life and skinning your nose on a coral reef, you should be neither surprised, dismayed nor disempowered.  Just try to re-find your board and climb back on, all the while being very Pema-Kind-and-Forgiving to yourself.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tapped out?

Did you know MRI works because the body is mostly water?

Sorry, that's all I got this morning, in prep for a "Day in the Life" of an exhibit developer at the Detroit Science Center.

Today, the subject is MRI -- more specifically, an MRI exhibit in progress. The exhibit consists of a model Siemens "Magnetom Essenza" -- appropriately disarmed of its 1.5 Tesla power, but otherwise "operational" in the sense that the table and lights work.

The exhibit fabricators will build an 8-foot wall to house a 21" video monitor which will carry some of the burden of explanation . . . but the vast rest of expanse is mine to fill with text written on a 6th grade level.

Explaining MRI on an elementary level, well. . . the first skill required is patience with the inquiring reader. I must furnish just enough information to be credible and authoritative, without being overwhelmingly technical. (Not hard for an ad writer, with no background whatsoever in physics.) Second task is to be. . . engaging. Museum people know that the attention span of a visitor -- is about three seconds -- less than your average flea. So be clear, be concise and get on with it.

In my mind, at least for today, until review later this morning by a radiologist at Beaumont Hospitals, and a marketing representative from Siemens traveling from Philly to visit the museum -- my best shot at explaining MRI is in storybook style-- using a rebus. (Literally, words and pictures together) Very elementary, my dears, the text can be scanned in a glance, letting illustrations add the 10,000 words to explain just how hydrogen atoms behave in the body like biological compass needles, how radio frequency signals create a resonance - or a chatter in the matter -- and send off energy that is transmitted - this part I still don't get, but anyway. . . somehow the scanner can capture with precision this diversion of energy in your body, and according to different levels of H2O in its various tissues (blood as opposed to brain as opposed to heart or bone) it picks up the signals as gradients in hundreds of cross-sectional images that a computer assembles with remarkable clarity to show what's going on... thus, a perfect diagnostic tool for tumors or other abnormalities... and more recently, functional brain studies.

MRI is harmless, painless, uses no ionizing radiation, a totally noninvasive procedure. But it is a blast- a bit too confining for the claustrophobic and very loud. Best medical advice I can give you is my grandmother's: eat well, be well and with good fortune, you'll never see the inside of one of these monster scanners.

Sorry, creatively, that's all I got today.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fran's Website

I got Fran Belkin's okay to put her web address on the blog.  I tried to lure her onto the Way, but she dodged because she is the busiest, travelingest, readingest, having funnest person I know.

She's a serious artist and has, as far as I can tell, has made her creativity and her art a huge priority in her busy life.  She takes classes (last year one at the Cleveland Institute of Art!) and engages in local competitions -- like the giant guitars downtown and the funny dogs. She hangs out at the Apple store way more than I do!

Right now she's blogging from Israel.  Take a peek at her life and her art.  And be inspired.  And entertained.  Her site is so artfully done, almost all the photos are in frames and when I do my usual evil cut and paste I only get the frames.  But here's Fran on the right with her family in Israel.  Aren't they having fun???