Sunday, 27 April 2014

On public spaces, money and... Wallander

I remember reading something by the philosopher Betrand Russell about a utopic society in which people live in frugal apartment buildings but share grand public spaces, like an amazing dining room with stylish furniture, oil paintings, statues, etc. I never found this essay again, so now I am wondering whether it was a figment of my imagination. But let's pretend he did write it. The closest place to this utopia that I have found is London. Apart from the obvious public spaces, like parks, gardens, museums, galleries and libraries, which are almost all free, there is also a quite relaxed code when it comes to cafes and bookstores. You can sit in a cafe for hours with just one cup of coffee, and some bookstores have comfortable couches that encourage you to flick through as many books as you want. In recent years I have become quite an expert in London's public spaces because I've started to appreciate Russell's utopia. I don't need to own a Vermeer or a Rembrandt. I can go to Kenwood House, sit on one of their new leather couches and let my eyes feast on great paintings and amazing furniture. For a reasonably affordable fee, I can become a friend of galleries and museums and have access to the members' rooms, most of which have couches and armchairs. And some, like Tate Modern, offer breathtaking views of the city. Of course most spaces, including the free ones, like the Barbican Centre, also have free wi-fi. So, two or three times a week, I pack my explorer kit - hat, water, a printed map or itinerary and my smartphone - and I go on a reconnaissance mission. Some interesting points that I have noticed. One is an intense  feeling of transience. I am aware that I am only passing by, that this place doesn't belong to me. The other is a strong impulse to buy. I noticed that while I was perusing some art books in a bookstore (on the comfortable couch). I had this strong impulse to buy at least one book. Of course there are books that I consult over and over and so I need to have them, but exhibition catalogues and art books I hardly ever open again. This made me think about our, or at least my, relationship with public places. I wonder if we "mark" them, if there is an instinct to assert ownership. Something very primal. I seem to have a sequel of rituals in public spaces, especially the newly discovered ones. I have to sit on a number of different chairs, facing different directions, I have to buy something, at least a coffee, listen to my jazz radio and... read Wallander. I have read Wallander all over London, he's been my fellow explorer. Why Wallander? Well, I started reading Mankell's books because I can download them for free from the library, and they are an easy read, ideal for tube journeys. They are also gripping and well written. But so are a lot of other books. I don't know why Wallander, I don't think I would particularly like the guy as a friend, but his environment has become familiar and gives me the continuity I miss when I am outside. I am down to the last book, so I'll have to say goodbye to my travelling companion soon and find a replacement. I feel almost sad. This exploring voyage has also made me think about money a lot. Not about the usual stuff that you can easily find in millions of books and articles and blogs. But money as a way of marking one's territory and asserting continuity. The exchange of symbolic value and goods as a way to declare one's existence. It's very subtle, yet very strong. Public spaces are a way to enjoy an infinite wealth of beauty, information, comfort and, well, wealth itself. But the act of buying gives us roots, so that we don't fly away or become transparent. It's holding on to something, it's not trusting the flow. If we could trust the flow, the next non-Wallander book, and all the free internet things, videos, tutorials, articles, and all the things we have already, pens, pencils, notebooks, clothes, conversation (remember conversation?), we could free ourselves from this need to find roots through financial transactions. This is only a small part of the huge subject of money, but it's an interesting and not commonly explored side, the urge to buy things that we already have or that we can enjoy for free.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

To all lost friends

I am on the round terrace of the British Library. Looking up at the clouds. My lost friend Steven Taylor told me something a while ago, something that Allen Ginsberg had told him, about the sky above, the closest sense of infinity that we can have, everyday, all of the time, just by looking up. I don't remember the exact words but I treasured their general meaning. Forever. Our friendship, though, was not forever. And this made me reflect upon friendship, how it is formed, sustained and how it ends. Most friendships are born, maintaned or terminated by mutual agreement. This mutual agreement is a complex and intricate dance, made mostly of micro signals with which we define the terms of the agreement, our boundaries. How much space we need in our relationship with that one person, what subjects can be approached, what activities can be done together. Every friendship is different, with some friends we speak everyday, with others only once a month. Normally we are pretty skilled at this friendship creating and managing. In most cases, if we like someone, they like us too. Why? I don't know, but our instinct does. Even in the ending of a friendship there is usually a mutual agreement, growing naturally apart or arguing over something important. There may be pain in ending a friendship, but still, it is mutual and explainable. There are cases, though, that leave us puzzled. The ones in which the severing of a friendship is one-sided. You were happy or satisfied with how a friendship was developing or continuing, but the other person was not. Luckily this doesn't happen too often. Because it hurts. Often for both parties. The person who has been 'unfriended' is confused. What micro or not so micro signals had she missed? What did she do 'wrong' that could be put right by talking, explaining? We think that if our friend suddenly doesn't want our friendship anymore, they must have misunderstood us somehow, and if only we were given the chance to explain, we would be able to resume our relationship, or at least find closure. This is hardly ever the case. How do I know? Because I had to withdraw from a friendship a few times myself, and if my unfriends asked me for an explanation, I would feel horribly trapped. It's not that I don't know. It's just that the friendship was severed because I knew that there was no point in explaining. Most of the times, when our chatterbox rehearses arguments and explanations in our heads, is because we know that the other person would not understand, no matter what. We want to explain because explanations are needed, and if explanations are needed, the natural dance of friendship is simply not working, is not naturally flowing. Paradoxically, when explanations are needed, they should not be given or demanded. I hear you, of course there are cases in which explanations work, but those cases are the non-one-sided cases, in which both parties want to continue the relationship. If one of the two has made a final decision, and instinctively they know it's final (and so do you, deep inside), letting go is the best policy. But some of my lost friends were great people who contributed positively to my life while the dance lasted, they opened new horizons for me and created magical moments. So I celebrate that. I look up to the sky and I am grateful to see an infinite world.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

On memories and validation

I've been trying to understand why dementia patients want to go home. Home being the place of their childhood, where their parents are still alive. There may be a neurological reason, perhaps related to the way we store memories, but all I've found are psychological explanations, mostly given by women whose mothers are dementia sufferers. They say it's a search for a place of safety, a way to find refuge in a world that has become to various degrees unfamiliar, hence scary or unsettling. The more I was reading these articles and blogs, the more I saw certain patterns emerge. I could not find any men talking about their father with dementia. Well, I am sure there are some, but it's the daughter-mother bond that seems to be more affected. Also it seemed to me more and more that this sense of living in an alien world, from which we have to find reassurance and safety in the familiar, is something that we all experience. Dementia just seems to magnify it. Very early on in life we stop looking at the future and start to look back for comfort, old songs, old toys. We fall in love with vintage, flick through black and white photographs, we tread memory lane more and more often. But why? My childhood, for instance, was not at all a stress-free zone. I had pressure at home and from society to be something I was not. What made it a safe place, in my opinion, is that I had no say. That's right, because I was not the decision maker, I could not do wrong. Now it's different, now I have choices. Constantly. And choices are stressful, because if you make the wrong one, it's your fault. Nobody else's. You could have had a good life, but you messed it up. Your fault. Forever. So, what do we do? We look for reassurance. We post a little something on facebook and wait for the thrill of the 'likes'. And we shape our lives accordingly, to get that buzz again and again. Like children, running to their parents for approval. But guess what? You know it already. It doesn't work. Online validation is like a crystal flute of champagne, with all those glistening bubbles rushing to their evaporation. Just like memories, the memories that keep us grounded in a safe place. I wonder. If we tried now, while our memories are reasonably intact and so are our mental tools in general. If we tried now, while we can, to have a different vision, to look for validation inside ourselves, to learn to create a portable safe place that comes with us wherever we are, if we cultivated belief and a sense of belonging to the world, and not just to a tiny vulnerable community. I am not talking about a form of religion, just belief in our resilience, strength, adaptability. Belief in what we do, joy for what we do, belief in our ability to find something good in everything. If we did all that now, would dementia still strip it away? There is no answer to this question, I guess. Yet, search for reassurance and validation from the outside can actually stop us from growing, learning, making mistakes, learning, becoming stronger, learning, liking ourselves and what we do, and, yes, did I forget to mention? Learning.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

My guide to Veronese

The (rather pompous) guy next to me steps way, way back and then arches his spine so that his head is even further away from the canvas and exclaims, "Ahhh, look at those trees... and the clouds... absolutely stunning!" I look at him first, then at the super tight cluster of semi naked humans in very uncomfortable poses, and detect, way into the background, two squidgy chubby trees and some chubby squidgy clouds. I am confused. Is that not how they usually portrayed nature back then? In the background, all soft and squidgy. Like those thick white ankles, so soft your finger would be engulfed if you tried to poke them. What a contrast, I think, with those pink, sweaty and decidedly ugly feet. I look at all the pictures, and the feeling is the same: I feel rejected. That's right, I am not the one doing the rejection. This art refuses to talk to me, it averts its eyes, and I am left alone, intellectually naked, and utterly confined to my modern world. These paintings speak a language I don't understand. Of course, I could pick up some kind of Veronese for dummies, and an art historian would talk me through all the layers of meaning, all the breakthroughs, innovations, allegories. It is obvious that in these paintings nothing is left to chance. Everything has a reason and a meaning, or more than one. But where is the human connection? Where are the joys, the pains of these people? Apart from Cupid, allegedly being mounted by a dog, who does look genuinely scared, everybody else is, to say the least, ambiguous. And even Cupid is not exactly looking at his unwelcome suitor.

Yes, that's it. What are these people looking at? Not at each other, not at me. Their eyelines, like their postures, seem to compose a mysterious web, a thread that I should be able to follow, but fail to. But I paid for my ticket, so I am not going to give up as yet and will try to observe every painting, to come up with some understanding and conclusions. Here are my observations: most of the cows look at the ugly pink feet with a mixture of curiosity and distaste.
Most of the people are seeing things that are not there, yet they are paying no attention to rather disturbing presences, like cherubs carrying crosses.

Little by little, I try to open some communication doors with the world this guy lived in, over 500 years ago. Was it really that crowded, everybody on top of each other? I imagine bustling squares and markets. And religion must have been so powerful. Did people actually see cherubs? Perhaps so often that they were unfazed by them. I imagine bringing these mysterious people down from their ornate frames into the gallery, with their unnecessarily bare breasts, their lavish fabrics, aloof cows, skinny dogs and squidgy trees. I want to hear the shouting of those bright clothes, I dread the smell of the pink feet. Room by room, thought after thought, I come to the conclusion that time, an open mind, and a pinch of humour and irreverence work better than any art history book at bringing down the walls that separate us. Thank you, Veronese, for this brief tour into your world, you've certainly given me food for very, very strange dreams.