Measure of Existence (Apparently, A Tribute)

Two or three weeks ago, I planned to do two things and wound up doing four. Happy to take myself into the city to see art and exhibits and make myself think.

For the past week, I’ve had a stress headache because COVID 19 has taken over the world. It has shut down the city and the suburbs.

So here’s a way to get out of your head if not out of the house. I’m going to remember my experience in a way that might let you live it for yourself. (My creative writers and my lit readers would be very excited that I’m practicing what I preach about second person pov). And away we go.

It’s the first time your using the MTA app’s eticket for your train ride into the city. You don’t have any idea if you need to leave it open, leave your phone on, if you can use other apps. You brought your charger in case your phone died on the ride but also you charged it until the minute you left the house even though it was already at 100% and you thought somehow it would suck in some energy reserves. You are in a car with the bathroom because nine times out of ten, you manage to sit in the car with bathroom. You activate your ticket only to realize there’s like a quiz to take to make sure you mean to activate your ticket, and really, this is not the kind of decision you thought you’d have to make, so now–as usual–you’re breaking out into the nervous sweats. Then the conductor comes by and barely says anything to you because your little eticket is flashing pretty colors. You let your phone sleep as you read your book that you started a few weeks ago and haven’t gotten back to because all those papers and meetings. You change trains and your eticket continues to work as you continue to read. You stop sweating. Sweet relief.

You take a walk downtown to find the David Zwirner Gallery. You already missed the doppleganger exhibit, so there was no way you were going to miss the Doug Wheeler one. You walk down and across and down and across and finally get to the street where the gallery is, and there are other people trying to find the same gallery because there are a lot of choices of doors. The sun is out and it is windy and the galleries are by the water so you are a little chilly as you try to choose the door that will get you to the exhibit. It’s kind of like Let’s Make A Deal for the art world.

The couple with the stroller ahead of you have chosen the correct door, which means they win! Which means you win because you get to see the artwork, too! The exhibit on view is a light exhibit. It looks like this.

Zwirner Gallery February 2020 (1)

And maybe that looks interesting but also some may ask, Why did you walk all that way on a windy day to see a framed box of light? Then you realize that this photo does the exhibit no justice. Here’s what it looks like again:

Zwirner Gallery February 2020 (6)

Ahhh, an entire lit up room wall thingie of light! It’s pretty groovy. You walk up to the light to see where it’s coming from. The wall curves under the floor. The light emanates and radiates from all around the wall that seems to be attached but also not attached to anything. You stay for at least twenty minutes, watching people look at the wall.

When you decide you have seen enough of the light wall, you leave the gallery and see a sign for Basquiat. The other side of the sign says Warhol. Go you must. So instead of keeping with the plan to go straight to the museum, you head over to Taglialatella Gallerieson 10th Ave. Your first fun find there is Einstein. He’s got a good message.

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You go inside for the Basquiat, but before you even get to that, you’re floored. They’ve got Keith Haring. They’ve got a bunch of sparkly silkscreens from Russell Young. There are artists with names like Jerkface and Mr. Brainwash. And then you turn the corner and Good God! It’s a Lichtenstein! (That’s for your brother). You do find the Basquiat and the Warhol, and you bask in their artistic genius. (For more about your experiences with Basquiat and Warhol, you can go here ).

Because you’re so close to it, you head up onto the Highline. It’s got free public art! And RuPaul!

You realize that it’s cold up here on the Highline, so you walk quickly. The sun comes out, and you slow down to bask. The sun goes back in, so you pick up the pace. Some young woman runs up behind you, calling out, Hey excuse me! You turn and see she’s holding out a $5 bill. She says, You dropped this. You say, Oh, hey, thanks! She runs off, and you almost skip the rest of the length of the park because there’s still human kindness in this world.

So happy are you that you overshoot your landing and get down off the Highline around 14th when the Rubin is on 19th. Then? You. Get. Lost. You look at street signs, expecting to see numbers and instead you see the word Washington or something. What is this non-numbered sign all about?

You decide to walk away from the water. Two reasons that will help: 1. it’s warmer away from the water. 2. it’ll take you closer to 7th, a cross street. Your spatial ineptness is in full swing, but this decision makes sense a little at least.

A few more turns and double backs, and you finally find The Rubin, your new home away from home. You are so thankful that you’ve found it because you’re super cold now and you have to pee really bad. They have a bathroom! You know that bathroom well because it’s the bathroom you brushed your teeth in when you slept there a few months ago. (Here, “slept” means “had weird half asleep dreams while half asleep writing them down only to find they make no sense and your handwriting looks like the writing you find in a journal kept by a murderer).

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You check in on your old friend, the Bodhisattva.

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Then you venture into the exhibit you’d been itching to see, Measure Your Existence. The main reason you wanted to see it is it has interactive components, and you love to touch things in a museum.

The first piece is a carpet of candy. You get to take a piece of candy. As the pile dwindles, the museum replenishes it. Measure the existence of candy.

You take some candy. You eat a piece of candy. You enjoy the candy. You enjoy the fact that you got to take something from the museum even more than the candy itself.

Then you come upon a wall of letters. Anyone can write a letter to anyone. You can seal the letter and address it. You can seal the letter and not address it. You can leave the letter open for other visitors to read. You read a letter. And then another. A lot of people have a lot of guilt and write a lot of letters apologizing. Some ask for prayers.

Then you see a little booth. You have to take off your shoes to go inside. You can write a letter in there, too, so you do just that. You seal it and address it. The museum will eventually send it.

When you emerge from the letter hut and put on your boots, you notice a woman sitting at the other writing desk, and she’s weeping. You teared up writing your own letter. You assumed a lot of people probably cry when writing. Here is the proof.

Around the corner you watch a snippet of a film about a guy calling different companies and talking to whomever answers as if he’s talking to his mom, and then he realizes his mom is dead. It’s subtitled. It’s a weird concept. You stop watching.

You then watch an animated film and listen to the meditative soundtrack. You’ve got those big headphones on again. You always wear headphones in some capacity when you come here.

Then you decide to shake hands with a bronze hand. You’ve seen it before and have not shaken the hand. Today is the day you shake the hand. It’s not creepy. But actually, yes, it is.

You think about going to see the Impractical Jokers movie but the movie times don’t jive with your train times. You walk back to Penn, taking in more art along the way.

You wind up waiting at Penn for half an hour, which gives you plenty of time to start worrying again about using the MTA app eticket. It also gives you time to read more of your book, and you get halfway through it.

Then about a week later, you get some mail that makes you smile.

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You know that the only true way to measure existence is in gratitude. You thank the universe for everything, every single thing.

Dreaming Under The Bodhisattva

Remember how I’m always finding ways to lie down in New York City? Like when I’ve done yoga in Times Square? Or like when I went to the sound exhibit at the Rubin Museum? I found another way to lie down for an even longer period of time. Again at the Rubin, but this time, at night. It’s a Dreamover, y’all! That means I slept over at the museum. Dreams. Come. True. But like, the goal kind of dream, not the kind of dreamy dreams you have when you sleep. Because if the dreams I had at the Rubin actually came true, we’d have problems. I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, getting to the Rubin from home meant a train and a walk. That meant taking as little as possible with me, which is a good thing. I mean, remember all the bags I took with me for two and a half days at the ashram? I’m moving towards practicing non-attachment for sure, and so I chose to take a large bag to carry my sleeping bag and a pashmina and slippers, and then a backpack for toiletries, a hat, a book, a pen, and a pillow. A friend offered to lend me a camping blow up thingie, but that didn’t pan out, so here I was with as little stuff as possible for a few hours of sleeping.

Side note: This sleeping bag is seeing more action in the past few months than it has in years. Remember Fishkill?

Nothing I carried was heavy, but everything was bulky. At the train station, I had to ride the escalator sideways with my backpack hanging on one arm and the sleeping bag on the other. Walking downtown, that sleeping bag was whacking into people as I glided down seventh. I can imagine what I looked like: a tiny woman carrying a backpack as large as a small child, wielding an overstuffed beach bag, careening across every street. After this whole experience, I kept saying that I didn’t see anything strange this trip into the city, and right now I’m realizing that I was the strange thing that happened.

Anyway, into the museum!

As a crowd formed outside as we waited for the doors to open, a few dog walkers came by, and all the dogs stopped and wanted to go into the museum. Whatever energy was happening was already detectable. Then a few passersby asked what was going on. One woman behind me kept answering with “It’s a dreamover!” which lead to follow-up explanations until someone else simply started answering, “We’re dreaming with the gods and goddesses.” That answer seemed more sufficient for anyone who asked.

Finally, doors opened and in we went, sat at tables, and then got escorted to our artwork that we’d dream under. Everyone fills out a survey beforehand and gets art matched to them. And so I found myself in an alcove on the third floor–a place I’ve always found colder than the rest of the museum, and also the place I’d guessed I’d be–and my artwork was a bodhisattva with hands in a teaching position. Holding my place was a notebook, the agenda for the evening, and a slip of paper that explained why I was there: “We have paired you with a loving bodhisattva who offers you a teaching gesture, to support your deepening practice as a student but also the wisdom you have to give as a newly published author.

Yep, that’s the right piece of artwork for me.

I unrolled my sleeping bag, set up my pillow, put on my slippers, and sat. This was happening. The building carries sound, so I listened for a while and read the itinerary for the evening. There was going to be a lecture on dreams! I didn’t know that! Very cool. Then there would be breakout sessions! I didn’t know that! Very not cool for the socially awkward but here I was sleeping among strangers and only once did I think hey is this safe? and didn’t know the answer and did it anyway, so the breakout session was still on the list of things to do.

And then we’d get a snack!

And then we’d get a bedtime story!!

This was like kindergarten!!!

Once I was settled in, I met my nook-mate, a lovely woman who works in the arts. We chatted about creativity, and then she blew up her double-inflatable mattress while I sat on my cushy sleeping bag. My dream collector–the person who would be waking me up and asking me about my dreams–came over to explain my artwork to me. We talked about how it was perfect for me. She suggested I mimic the teaching mudra to see what the artwork was doing. (This is where I’ll tell you that I usually refer to mudras as Buddhist gang signs, which is probably not funny to Buddhists or the bodhisattva, so I didn’t say that joke there).

Dreamover (20)

Then I got up, realizing that, Hey, I’m in a museum! I can go museum-ing! And so I did. I walked up to the top floor and spiralled my way down. The only difference is that there were sleeping bags and mattresses and pillows everywhere. It was colossally strange in the most wonderful way possible.

I made my way down to the bottom floor theatre for the conversation between Tibetan Buddhist lama Khenpo Pema and Jungian analyst Patricia Llosa. I did that thing that I usually don’t like people doing–I sat right next to someone when there were clearly lots of empty seats elsewhere. I was kind of tired by this time–it was 9 PM, which is nearing my jammie-time, and also, I was focused on being able to see both people. Short gals gotta have a plan. The guy I sat next to didn’t seem to mind, and we chatted about what we were drawing. The screen on stage had a suggestion to draw our artwork from memory, so that’s what we were both doing. We both realized that we had very different pieces of artwork ,and they were both intricate, and neither of us excels at drawing.

After being welcomed and clapping for people who come back every year, the conversation began. It explored dreams from Eastern and Western perspectives, and it highlighted places where they converged mostly. There was a Q&A. This was an actual Q&A. It wasn’t like when I go to writing conferences and there’s a Q&A where people raise their hands and just talk without a question. There were actual questions!

That led to meditation. It was now almost 10 PM. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and then had a head jerk because I’d started to fall asleep. That happened two more times, not in the way it’s been happening during meditation because I’ve been falling deeper into the mind, but because I was sleeping, yo. Still, it was a good meditation session.

Onto the breakout groups! So awkward. So so awkward. Our floor was not a talkative floor, and the leaders were not talkative leaders. However, once there were a few questions like how to remember our dreams and answers about dreams and emotions, it was pretty okay. Then right before we were done, the conversation turned towards lucid dreaming. Now this was getting interesting! But then the chimes chimed out. It was time for snacks!

The spread offered apples, clementines, chocolate star cookies, trail mix, cheese, and kettle corn. This was around 10:30 PM. Who eats kettle corn at this time? I’ll tell you who–a lot of people. It was a hot commodity. Also, we could choose from three kinds of tea. Rubin Museum, you get me, man, you so get me. I had a turmeric tea. Mmm, so good.

Also, that’s not my camera doing weird things. Everything was tinged orange. Again, Rubin: You. Get. Me.

I brushed my teeth in a museum bathroom. How many of you can say that?

When I came back to my sleeping bag, I saw a stack of cushions. One of the docents had left them. I thanked her, saying I’d use them if I needed them, but my sleeping bag was good so far. After laying there a while, reading the same Kerouac book I’ve been reading for what now seems like eight lifetimes (referenced in several of the posts linked above), I realized I could feel the floor with my entire body. I tucked those cushions right up under me. Yep, that docent knew what she was talking about. How thoughtful!

Then it was time for my bedtime story!

First, a side note: My morning meditation routine waxes and wanes between silent to sound. When it’s silent, I usually have a mantra. I don’t feel like I choose it. I feel like it chooses me. Something pops into my head, and I use it as a mantra for however long it lasts in my mind. For the past few weeks, I’ve been using I am not the body.

I tell you that tidbit to tell you this: My story was Vow of the Bodhisattva in which Loke enters a state of samadhi. As he senses his own organs and bones and then subatomic particles he states, “I am not this body. All that I believed was a solid mass is nothing but vibration.”

Let me repeat: Loke in my bedtime story says the line that has been my mantra for the past few weeks.

This was meant to be!

Then it was bedtime. The museum provided earplugs, so I put them in. Then I put a blanket over my head and snuggled down into my sleeping bag. I feel asleep for a few minutes or more because the next time I opened my eyes, the lights had gone out.

And then? Things. Got Weird.

At least one person was singing in his sleep. Someone was also talking in his or her sleep. I heard that with the earplugs in. I know it was real. I don’t know if anyone else heard it. Then I started wondering if anyone was going to start sleepwalking. There were stairs! This could be tragic!

Then I started worrying that I wasn’t going to fall asleep and then I wasn’t going to dream and then my dream collector would have nothing to collect and I’d be a big huge disappointment to everyone, especially the bodhisattva.

Then I talked myself off that ledge. No one would care if I dreamed or not. In fact, the cafe was open all night for anyone who had insomnia and wanted to have tea.

I took out the earplugs, realizing that they could be the reason I wasn’t sleeping. Then I fell asleep for a bit. Then I woke up, realizing I’d been dreaming. I reached out for my phone to get some light and for my notebook to scribble down whatever I could. And then this went on, repeating itself, me waking with a start each time, wanting to remember what I’d dreamed.

When morning came, I was awake already. I actually went to the bathroom at around 5 something, careful not to trample on anyone sleeping. I know I wasn’t the only one awake because I’d heard the bathroom door opening and closing, and I heard the elevator ding a time or two. The sleep singing had stopped hours before, which was kind of a bummer because it was kinda funny.

My dream collector found me lounging–they wake you by shining a light your way–and we chatted about my dreams. She wrote things down and asked me about emotions and colors. She also asked if I dreamed about or felt influenced by my art. Nope. My dreams? Were whacked out. When she left, I looked at what I had written. The act of writing them down made me remember them, so I hadn’t had to look at my notebook when she was collecting. That’s a good thing, too, because what I wrote down looked like a lunatic had found a pen for the first time and decided to scratch at some notebook pages for a while.

Here are my dreams:

  1. A man in a hoodie standing against a wall holding something important.
  2. People needing to know the hours that Disney is open.
  3. A mall kiosk lady walking around her kiosk in a mall.
  4. Looking for a place to sit in a restaurant/cafe that I realized was RollNRoaster in Sheepshead Bay but also it wasn’t exactly that place, and then a tall dignified African American woman is with a large family and she’s wearing a trench coat and green patterned dress, and she stands up and politely says, I’m not going to wait anymore.
  5. There’s a ship in a storm but it’s not a real ship or storm because it turns out to be a tv set that looks like the set of that sci-fi show about water with the guy who was in that movie with the big fluffy white flying thing.

And that’s that.

I meditated for fifteen minutes. Then I trekked down to the cafe for breakfast with my notebook so I could do my morning writing. (It’s all about the routine). There was quite the spread for breakfast, too, but mostly stuff I don’t eat. Basically, it was all carbs and dairy, so like, the opposite of my life. Dreamover (5)

I was hungry, though, so I had three mini-muffins, fruit from the top of a parfait, and trail mix that was still out from the night before. I had green tea that was so so good. There was also coffee, apparently, but that looked pretty scary.

When I was done writing and nibbling, I packed up my stuff. Then I went to the morning breakout group to discuss our experiences. Again, there was a lot of awkwardness. We went around and made a group poem. I liked that, of course! Once the leader read the poem, I knew it was one of those poems that would also work backwards. I’m in the homestretch of teaching two creative writing workshops, so hearing work read out loud and knowing how to revise it comes to me instantly. It’s a gift. I didn’t ask for that, though, because everyone loved the last line, and I wasn’t into speaking up because the mini-muffins were weighing heavily on my soul.

We all said our thanks and goodbyes–I thanked the docent who had left me the cushions–and then I grabbed my bags and headed down the spiral staircase one last time. At the bottom was a station where we could draw something, so I drew a flower.

Then I went out onto the streets of NYC early on a Sunday morning. They were practically empty, so I wasn’t hitting into anyone with my gigantic bag as I strode uptown towards Penn. Then passing by FIT, I saw this for what seems like the first time:

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And that pretty much sums up the entire experience.