Sex in the Art Institute

Sex in the Art Institute

On my first visit to “Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces,” I was so mesmerized by the dazzling patterns in the robes of the geishas that I did, indeed, float around the gallery.

R_UP_129R2_85-27_web“My god, a whole exhibit devoted to prostitution,” my companion whispered halfway around the showcased Japanese beauties.

I dragged back-to-back out-of-towners to The Art Institute of Chicago to see the paintings of Japan’s “metropolitan amusements to life,” as the curator describes it. The Weston Collection of concubines and geishas were painted between 1600-1850, the Edo Period, dubbed by the Japanese of the time as the “floating world”. 

My visitors were as entranced as I was with a particular part of the exhibit. Behind Japanese-style slatted-wood walls, long scrolls were rolled out flat in climate-controlled glass-topped tables. Moving sideways foot-by-foot in silent walking meditation, I peered down at the cases to study the painted images: depictions of men and women flirting and kissing, men and women embracing, then men and women in the most preposterous coital positions. Colorful garments wrap around their legs and arms, leaving the genital areas fully exposed. It had been a long time since I’d seen an erect penis. I had no idea there were so many ways to use it. The Manasquan High School gym teacher in New Jersey didn’t cover positions in 1960s sex education. Edo Period Japanese parents, however, bequeathed these scrolls to their newly-wed offspring for their sex education. How grateful I would have been had my mother given me the modern equivalent, The Joy of Sex.

My friend gasped. “I didn’t realize Japanese males were so well-endowed.”

I shrugged. “Well, don’t forget, all the artists were men.”

My cousin Therese came to town for Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t wait to get her to the Art Institute. I resisted briefing her as we ascended the stairs to the exhibit, stopping first to see American Gothic and Georgia O’Keefe. I left her at the Floating World entrance and pointed to the sign for the Member’s Lounge.

“I’ll meet you there. Take your time.”

The Member’s Lounge sets out catalogs for every exhibit. I grabbed a coffee, the Floating World book and settled into a chair at a corner table scrunched up against a wall crammed with dozens of other cafe tables and chairs. I was deep into searching for the scrolls of the erect-penis paintings when I felt the rustling of a neighboring body. A man with Asian features was squeezing himself into the adjacent table. I resumed my search. A jolting woman’s voice interrupted my task asking to sit at the Asian man’s table. I resumed my search.

“What do you think of acupuncture?” The woman asked the Asian man.

“I really don’t know anything about it,” he said.

“You’re kidding?” said the woman.

“I was in Chinatown yesterday for acupuncture,” she said her voice reaching the third octave.

What was going on? Was she so charged up after seeing the erect-penis paintings of Asian men she had to create stupid pick-up lines for this guy? The two of them carried on as if they were in a bar drinking sake. I abandoned my search for photos of the erect-penis scrolls and grabbed my notebook to record their conversation.

Just then Therese came through the door of the Members’ Lounge, caught my eye and burst out laughing.

“Wow. No wonder you left me by myself—so I could blush in secret!”

“Therese,” I mumbled, letting her in on the conversation at the next table, “there’s so much writing material here. I could sit in here every day during this exhibit and come up with a whole book, “The Overheards in the Members Lounge.”

“Overheards?”

“Yes, you know. Things you overhear. Write it all down.”

“Is that legal?” Therese asked.

 

The Gift: World’s Greatest Christmas Song

The Gift: World’s Greatest Christmas Song

Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” 

“In the Bleak Midwinter”, a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti, was published under the title “A Christmas Carol” in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. The poem was set to music by composer Gustav Holst in 1906.

What can I give? 

Christina Rosetti gave us a personal tender poem pouring out her love for the transcendent God and later, in a rush, Gustav Holst vocalized her words with a snowy melody that perfectly acquaints us with her quiet passion. How pleased God must be with the gifts of these two artists whose 19th century lives were crippled by illness, financial despair, loneliness and depression. 

Their living legacy of lyrics and music are sprinkled delicately on the page waiting for me to sing them out from some curious reflexive viscera. As the organ introduces the tune, I nervously set my heart to sing with a childlike exuberance, “Me too! Me! Me! I want to give too.”  But what can I give? I have a terrible voice. Off-key. Tone-deaf. Dissonant. Breathless. Creaking. Croaking. Grating. I will make a mess of this magnificent carol. People will judge me. Shoot me dirty looks. Wish I’d shut it. Hope I choke. Hfullsizeoutput_48e5ate me!

He calls me to stillness. I respond in silence, close my eyes and allow Peace to rule my heart. In one second my transformed heart awakens and shakes off the grumbling in my head. I sing as loud as I can with my whole engaged core. I give God imperfect singing of this perfect song. I set my voice on an imaginary course of graceful, harmonious, angelic melody. This, I believe, is what He hears.

Oh my God, I love that my discordant heart can be stilled by Your Peace. I love that a perfect gift for You is my imperfect singing.

________________________________________

Dan Fogelberg sings In The Bleak Mid Winter HERE

Blest Be The Ties That Bind

I haven’t seen Rick Ridder in years but loved reading his 2016 book, Looking for Votes in All the Wrong Places. I bought it to add to his sales numbers, support him in my own 81JbkJ1jA8Lsmall way. We both survived the 1980s Gary Hart presidential campaigns. So when it comes to making room on the shelves for other sympathy books, the ties that bind keep Rick’s book in place.

My built-in bookshelf clings to the entire southern wall of my small living-dining room. It’s stuffed. Books, old Vanity Fairs, photos, souvenirs, dog sculptures, used conference binders, scrabble, dominoes, a small portable heater and my writing notebooks all collide on the faded white sagging shelves. 

When the time comes to rack the newer books, stockpiled on all the flat surfaces in my living space, I painstakingly pull the old prisoners from their slots on the shelves. They sit on the floor for hours, days, weeks, awaiting sentencing. I stare at the titles. Agonize over their fate. I wish then, more than at any other time in the hours before twilight, for a piece of someone to discuss the disposition of the hoard and share in my decision-making.

“What about this one? Remember this? Dimitir by William Peter Blatty. Mark suggested it when I told him Blatty named the girl in The Exorcist after me. Did I read it? Should I save it?” 

“Oh, then there’s: Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese. Jeanette gave me that when I turned 70. Maybe there’s something in it I can use for my writing.”

“Oh yeah. Listen to this. Ram Dass: ‘I used to have a sign over my computer that read OLD DOGS CAN LEARN NEW TRICKS, but lately I ask myself how many more new tricks I want to learn—isn’t it better to be outdated.’”

“Outdated! Is that how I should think of these old darlings?”

Oh, I tried long ago to get help with this salvage operation. It broke down, however, when I plunged into the stories behind my keepsake books. No matter how good a friend I netted, my stories bored in the telling and the telling and the telling. I sit alone now on a stool wheeling around the wreckage from title to title. 

“These? Oh no, must save Ian Rankin, my favorite mystery author. Oh, c’mon, Regan. It’s not as if they’re going in the garbage. Put them on the bookshelves in the laundry room. Someone’s bound to enjoy them before they get carted off to the used book sale at the Newberry Library.”

“Ok, these can go—two books by David Ellis. Oh, well, maybe. He’s the lawyer-turned-mystery-writer who prosecuted Rod Blagojevich. A good lawyer. And a good writer.”

“Richard North Patterson’s, Exile, needs to go. It’s old and smells. Musty. But I’m so grateful that it helped me understand the Israel-Palestine mess. Maybe I’ll read it again.”

Loneliness has its price. Out of this last 24-book pile-up, only one goes to the graveyard: The Complete Book of Food Counts.

Wish I’d Saved Those Dead Bodies

I open the drawer to a pile of dead bodies—naked GI Joe and his headless pal, Ken, with his pants around his knees. Small plastic green soldiers had been flung willy-nilly into the drawer’s mass grave. Their weapons, swords and shields, were buried with them, $_3just like their human predecessors in the ancient world. I had not opened my low-slung coffee table drawers since my grandchildren stopped overnighting several years ago. I kept them in tact as a mini-shrine to time standing still.

How I yearn for those little boys to come flying through the door one more time, go straight to the coffee table, plop down on the floor and do battle on the table top with their action figures.

In another drawer I discover my granddaughter’s mini stuffed bear dressed like Betsy Ross, her hat half chewed up by one of my now-dead Scotties; a tiny red plastic car from Monopoly Junior; and, three red plastic cups in the shape of Shriners’ hats. I reach to the back of the drawer and feel around for the little monkey that goes with the cups. All three grandchildren loved this old-fashioned shell game. They set the three hats on the table top, hid the monkey under one and spirited the hats round and round, in and out. I would guess which hat hid the monkey. I always got it wrong. One of them would jump eff347a9d7e47ddeb8669a526ce39fbain to help me, their old grandmother with her limited sense of place. Another would whisper, “pick the left one” knowing the hat on the left was empty. They thought juking me was hilarious. I did too, but for different reasons—my delight was simpler: I loved hearing them laugh.

Perhaps the shell-game scammers on the L trains started with the Shriner monkeys when they were kids. Chicago visitors huddle with their suitcases on the O’Hare Blue Line, get sucked in, throw their dollars down, win once, then lose over and over. The scammer fools them like my grandchildren fooled me. And they all laugh too.

I clean out the drawers and throw all the bits and pieces of remembered joy down the garbage chute. I disinfect the coffee table as if it were a crime scene. This is what we do, after all. Clean things out. Throw them away. To have space for more stuff. I don’t need more space though. If I can’t hang it on the wall, wear it or stuff it into my bookcase, out it goes. So now I have two empty compartments in my small apartment I’ve no use for. Oh, I could store little Christmas ornaments there, but I already have a place for those. One drawer is a perfect place for the two TV remote controllers I all of a sudden need. But I’d never remember I put them there.

I really wish I’d saved that monkey shell game.

For now, these drawers of time past remain empty.

Deut. T-Deut. T-Deut. Deut. Deuteronomy

Deut. T-Deut. T-Deut. Deut. Deuteronomy

Reflection on Deuteronomy?

Every couple of years my church asks me to write something for their Daily Devotions. When the request appeared in my inbox this year, it included the assignment list for the Advent writers. I sent a note to Pastor Rocky, “You get Mark and I get Deuteronomy?”

I’m not sure I have a favorite book in the Old Testament, but I am sure I have a least favorite—Deuteronomy. It has always seemed to me that this book is reserved for scholars; we lay people aren’t supposed to know its secrets.

Deuteronomy 18:15-18: The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from our fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. That’s exactly what you requested from the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the assembly, when you said, “I can’t listen to the Lord my God’s voice any more or look at this great fire any longer. I don’t want to die!” The Lord said to me: What they’ve said is right. I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites—one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.

Reflection. There’s no secret in this passage. Moses tells us we are getting what we asked for, someone we can talk to, who knows what it is to love and suffer and be happy and sad. He’ll be human, a Jew and a Prophet, like Moses. And when He comes, we can trust His words because He’ll be speaking for God.

Watch out if you see a prophet coming your way. They’re not foretellers of the future. They are truthtellers of the present, who expose hidden gracelessness. Jesus is God’s Truthteller. He digs into my dry bones and pulls out the person He wants me to be. I want to be that person too. Sometimes. I often hide from the truth—fearing ridicule and silent scorn because my greatest obsession is to be normal and to fit in.

God’s Truthteller came in the form of a sassy teenager recently: “you think you’re so privileged.” she said when my wrinkled old mouth asked for her seat on the bus. God’s Truthteller told me to love her, to be a Christian, to trust Him with her words.

Prayer. Thank you God, for sending me your Truthteller, a baby I can cherish, a man I can believe, and a friend I can trust. Expose the flimflam thoughts I tell myself and give me courage to have a life of truth and grace.

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See more Daily Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago here.

The 2018 Midterms: The Saints Came Marchin’ In

I Got My Country Back.

Weeks after the January 2017 presidential inauguration and Women’s March, I met with a group of women who look like me—old, white, middle-class—to discuss what we could do to help right our country. We devised a plan based on the Indivisible Handbook: meeting monthly to report on our calls and letters to elected officials stating our opinions about Cabinet secretaries, legislation and impeaching the President. We all decided the most impact we could make was to help turn the Sixth Congressional District blue, ousting six-term incumbent Republican Peter Roskam at the midterm election in 2018.

Cries at 2016 post-election presidential rallies to “lock her up,” a demand to jail Hillary Clinton awakened us to a cruel reality. This America, our country, had turned overnight into a place we’d only seen in movies like Elmer Gantry and footage from 1920’s Ku Klux Klan rallies. Little by little we discovered some of our friends, neighbors and family members had voted for a man who gloried in grabbing women by the genitals and calling immigrants murderers and rapists. At first I wondered how people could be so duped by the Reality Show President. I slowly came to realize not all are fooled. People who look like me actually like his white nationalist agenda. Yep. They like him, a tells-it-like-it-is guy, no matter how crude or criminal. I dismayed.

My enthusiasm, and that of my activist friends, turned pessimistic as we drew closer to the midterm election.

Sean Casten, an environmental scientist and political newcomer, won the Democratic primary for Congress in Illinois’ Sixth Congressional District over five women. The district includes some of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs. I had never heard of him, knew nothing about him. But he became the object of my strongest desire.

I really wanted him to win.

The day after his November victory an interviewer asked Representative-elect Casten what he attributed his win to. Without hesitation he said, “The women. My sister, my wife, the women who showed up every day in the campaign office, the ones who phoned voters from home and knocked on doors. The women.”

Democrats took 35 seats and counting away from the Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. And I got my country back. I live in a country where white suburban voters fullsizeoutput_45efelected a 32-year old black woman nurse, a country that elected a Sudanese Muslim immigrant woman who wears a head covering, a country that elected two Native American women for the first time in history, a country that elected a married-with-children gay governor, a country where a lesbian became a conservative state’s attorney general. My country will have 102 Democratic and Republican women in the House in January, 12 women in the Senate and 9 women governors. In my country, a record forty-four percent of employers offered employees paid time off to vote.

In my country, the saints are marching in.

How Will I Know When You Die?

How Will I Know When You Die?

No. No. No.

A friend asked me if I’ve given my son a list of people to call when I die. And right then I felt the future running away with me so fast I could hardly catch my breath.

“No.”

“Why not?”

I told her he’d never do it. “He’d get mad if I even approached the subject.”

“How do you know?”

How do I know? He hardly talks to me as it is, much less about an uncomfortable subject.

“It’s a hard job—to call around to strangers and tell them their friend has died. Think of the responses—the oh-no’s! and the demand for details. No. He wouldn’t do it.”

“Well, how will I find out?” pleaded my friend.

There’s that future again, coaxing me to live in it, whispering that it’s my responsibility to inform my friends when I die.

I’m drawn to a passage in Pascal’s Pensees: “We never keep to the present…we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up,” He writes about our failure to live in the present, “we think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control…” So, no. I’m not going to try to control what happens to me after I die, other than keeping my end-of-days papers in order. I’m happier owning this moment and this moment and this moment. I’ll let time future govern itself.

On the Sunday after All Saints Day, November 1, my church recites the names of those members who’ve died the past year. This year there were more people on the list I knew. I mean, I knew them. Not just their names. I knew them. After the service, as I sat alone in my pew listening to the organ postlude, I popped open my iPhone. I read an account about two women who guarded the dead body of one of the synagogue victims in Pittsburgh so that, in keeping with Jewish custom, the person would never be alone. I had descended into the grace of solitude, a still point, wondering if Jews believe the soul lives beyond the body when I heard someone call my name.

“Hi Regan,” came the voice of my pastor, Shannon Kershner. I looked up to see we were the only two people left in the church after the All Saints Service. She had just delivered a sermon on John, 11:35: Jesus wept. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible. Pastor Shannon reminded us Jesus cried over the death of his friend, Lazarus, joining in the collective grief of his community.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

“No,” I answered. “The dead.”

“Yes.”

She knew.