The Art of the Infinite

The sun was opening up swathes of brightness through the clouds, pools of sunlight spreading through the fir trees and onto the grass.  The car found its way into a parking spot on the drive near the front of the museum guided by some visceral memory of the circular drive around the dark hill at the entrance of the park. She got out and walked down the sidewalk to see the full east-facing entrance to the Museum. It was just as she remembered, yellow-white smooth stone and panels of etched glass gazing blankly out past the grand opening through the trees on the other side of the road, out towards the white pyramid of the volcano, poised in the middle of this symmetry.

As she approached the glass doors, there was a fragrance, if only in the mind, of some mildly oriental incense, of some kind of calm green and blue excitement, of a woman’s perfume mixed with fir scents and the cold, clear notes of marble and granite. Or maybe it was chilled music that touched the senses as subtly as fragrance.  Hard to tell. It reminded her of the moment, years ago, in the Modern Art Museum at the Smithsonian, when, as she walked down the swoop of the white marble staircase with a sense of the elegant expanse of air, of an openness all around yet defined, she caught sight of a friend she hadn’t seen for months, there with her mother, standing as if they had just entered the museum. Then she had been swept by a sense of the poetry inherent in moments of such confluence of beauty, memory and emotion. As she was now.

It was a day set apart. A moment seized, unanticipated. Going through the doors, there was a brief moment of disorientation, of change. Memory slipped out of place. A young woman stood guard at the opening to an atrium. Just beyond her, statues of Hindu gods were balanced on the walls and chairs and tables were set around as if for an outdoor café. Different somehow. The woman at the opening smiled and, with a gesture of her arm, directed her to the ticket desk hidden at the side.  The man at the desk, sober and dark, worked with his computer and then handed her the ticket. No limits of time. No demands.

She wandered into the atrium, taking surreptitious photos of a mother, young and graceful in the midst of her shed belongings, seated on a café chair, discreetly nursing her baby. She, of course, could feel the momentary direction of energy towards her back and turned slightly to catch the photographer snapping shots of the Shiva statue perched on the wall.  The graceful young woman settled back to her baby and the photographer moved on to the gallery through the door.

When she was young, she had met some interesting people, one in a town in Vermont. He was someone who frequented the food co-op, wearing the clothes of a farmer, but not one. His long blond hair fell in ringlets and combined with his beard, curling under his chin. That, along with the slight rosiness of his cheeks and the blue of his eyes, gave the ironic impression of a Fragonard angel. One day as he was shambling down the street in the small town, she decided to say hello. They had a friend in common that gave her a bridge into conversation. They saw each other several times over the next weeks, and then, when the winter holidays were approaching and they were both going back to family, she asked him for a ride in his camper truck to New York City. She could easily catch a train from there to her hometown in New Jersey. The memory of this journey connected with the objects of the museum in one of those internal sworls of mind.

They headed down the road in the evening a few days before Christmas with his German Shephard, Blue, in the back of the camper truck. The cab of the truck was cozy and they talked for hours as you do at the beginning of friendship. When he discovered they were nearly out of gas, it was already late into the night, somewhere in upstate New York. He said he had an uncle who lived in the town coming up and he knew where he kept a can of gas in his garage. We pulled up to a dark house where he found a key to the garage under a pot. In the dark, he found a gas can which he emptied into the truck and they were on their way again. It was only the next day he discovered he’d used his uncle’s kerosene instead of the gas. It was part, somehow, of the whole of it all.  Somewhere along the ride, they’d asked each other about their families. He’d told her that his was not particularly close. His father was a doctor who was busy a lot and his mother a psychiatrist who was fairly distant. He gave the impression they were a rather ordinary family living in an apartment somewhere on the east side, not far from the river. He said they would be fine with putting her up for the night.

She slept for a while. Sometime after midnight, she woke up as they pulled up in the large drive in front of an enormous building where a doorman in livery was awake all night, watching the door. As her friend opened the truck door and stepped out, the doorman came out of the building through the glass doors of the entrance, smiling, greeted her friend by name and hugged him. As she began groggily collecting her things, her friend took Blue of the back of the truck. As the dog started to look around for a place to pee, lifting his leg after the long ride, her friend rummaged in the back for the leash. Realizing it wasn’t there, he pulled the belt from his loose, dirty jeans and improvised a tether around his collar. Ragtag as they were, the doorman joyously ushered them all in through the enormous sliding glass doors, into the waiting elevator. When she asked her friend “Which floor,” he said, “It’s at the top. This is where Johnny Carson lives, too, and Truman Capote, parts of the year.”  As he pushed the button, she felt the sweat of a long day, and the damp crumple of her cotton shirt tucked into jeans that hadn’t been washed for several uses and felt some stirring of self-consciousness that combined itself, as they began their ascent, with the sinking of her stomach and the sleepiness in her head.

After a long climb, the elevator doors opened and her friend knocked on the door that faced them. After a few minutes, it was opened by an elegant woman with blue eyes and stylishly timed blond hair. She wrapped an arm around her son’s shoulders and ushered them in, as if greeting guests at two in the morning were a common event. Here is where the stories begin to converge.

They walked together through the entrance hall towards a partially opened door where the lights of a kitchen could be seen. She turned down another short hall and opened the door to her son’s room, which was immaculate and clearly expensively designed. As he put down his things on the bed, his mother said, “Your friend will sleep in the Ming room. It’s all set up. Show her where it is. I’m going to bed. Welcome! See you both in the morning.”

Her friend kissed his mother good night as she smiled and turned to go down the hallway. He gestured for her to follow behind his mother who quickly vanished through a hidden passage.  She continued ahead of him and found herself in a huge room surrounded by windows that seemed at least fifteen feet high, revealing the black night sky and a full landscape of skyscrapers’ lights. As she turned to take it in, there through the windows on one end of the room was the familiar outline of the United Nations Building, standing guard next to a dark river, a dominating presence through the glass. Large forms in cases loomed here and there in the dim expanse of the room. She turned and whispered, “What are those big things?” “Ancient Chinese bronzes,” he replied, “Bells and urns.”  Quite awake now, she said, “What is this? Where are we?”  “In my parents’ apartment,” he said. “My father is a collector. Come this way. I’ll show you to your room.”

She turned to face the stairway as he pointed behind them. In front of the staircase sat an astonishing figure, which she first took to be alive, one arm extended gracefully over a lifted bent knee, one leg curled under him as he looked out at them serenely. It was a man with long hair, lithe, clothed only in what were now just bare outlines of a loincloth, life-sized, carved of some light colored wood, riddled with wormholes, ancient yet intact. His presence was penetrating and palpable. She recognized him immediately somehow and was understood. Now calmly alert, attentive, she climbed the stairs behind her friend. They found the door to the bedroom, opened it and switched on a soft light to reveal a four-postered bed of dark wood with a flat canopy, simple and elegant. “That’s it,” he said, “The Ming bed. It’s actually more comfortable than it looks. I think you’ll like it.” He said goodnight and closed the door.

The next morning there was a tour of the bronzes, and an introduction to his balding, spectacled, Jewish father who strangely seemed delighted to meet her, this guest slipped in during the night. The father invited them into his study where there was coffee in porcelain cups and beautiful Persian miniatures, populated with elegant figures and lovers, and he showed her marvellous lithographs and etchings of artwork done for famous books. Marvel after marvel. Large Picasso painting of people feasting, eating lobster, in the dining room.

Months later, his son sat with her in his family’s estate on Long Island while he unpacked suitcases full of ancient Chinese artefacts that had just been delivered for his father, unwrapping each to handle and inspect it. This was when she saw the small jade bowl.  This was when she held in her hands a bowl made of light green jade, perhaps of the Tang Dynasty, precious beyond wealth, exquisite. It was so delicate it seemed to weigh as much as a bird’s feather, yet was big enough to be held in both hands. It was perfectly smooth over its entire surface, with no indication of any carving or etching. Yet the design of a lotus (or perhaps a chrysanthemum) was clearly apparent in the bowl’s bottom. When held ever so carefully up to the light from the window, the flower design floated somehow within the jade, etched in some uncanny way within, etheric, impossible.  Its beauty was a being, the soul of the stone itself, the cool slight pressure in the cup of her hands like a life. Of all the miraculous objects, this and the ancient wooden sage were the ones that stayed with her for the forty-five years that stretched between those objects and the ones of the Asian Art Museum.

These images walked with her as she entered an airy gallery lined with windows. Each tall window framed scenes of trees and sky in the park beyond. Three large glass cases each contained an enormous jade disc, ceremonial plates of different designs, each of slightly different tones of green, deep as oceans or light as heavens. Each floated between worlds. She stood in front of one and then another for long, long moments, mind as empty and infinite as the round surface of the plate, lost in the colors captured within endless layers of glaze—lost in the perfection of the curves and the roundness.  It is true there is no linear time. Here, as we’re perched on the swing of one year into the next, the transition point of one season at its depth into another, there is no way but to go beyond.

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