Tai’s Room

I dreamt it was a clear day. There was something moving in the sky, transparent yet luminous, holding its own changing shape. I wondered what it was, but no amount of wondering could bring it closer to me or me to it. My thoughts were like a barrier keeping us apart. So, I expressed my longing for this thing, and the simple openness of my desire brought us together, before the words had even escaped my lips.

Since I stopped dancing full-time about four years ago, I have searched for a new place for myself. Teaching and choreographing have been invaluable experiences and have provided me with an income, but something’s missing there. Even when I danced, I had this awful “something missing” feeling constantly gnawing away at me. It’s just that being a professional dancer is so all-consuming that I was able to push that feeling to the back burner for a while. For years, actually.

But now that I am past that phase of my life, the gnawing has returned in full force. What is my purpose and where do I belong? I know this is a common enough question. I look around me and it seems that I am not alone. Many people feel unfulfilled on that level. But then, every once in a while, I encounter someone who is in their glow. In their dharma. And it shows. You see, I do believe we come here with an intention. This intention, this purpose, may have nothing to do with one’s career, but I have this notion that for me at least, my spirituality and my outward work want to align.

“Yes. It’s called a mid-life crrrisis,” says Mr. Octopus.

When searching for our purpose, great teachers like Malidoma Some and Joseph Campbell tell us to follow what we are naturally drawn to, or as Campbell puts it to “follow your bliss.” Well, see that’s the trouble. I spent so many years focusing on nothing but dancing, that I didn’t make room to do things I liked. And sadly, for many of those years, I didn’t even like dancing. I felt bound to it, but that is not the same as love. It was fueled with ambition, but that’s not love either.

I guess I loved it in a way, but it didn’t make me happy as it once did. There is a part of me hoping that I will one day rediscover my love for dancing and that thought brings tears to my eyes. When did it stop being my passion? I think it was the moment I stopped loving myself. I thought I had to sacrifice myself for it, but dancing never asked that of me. So, anyway, that’s all to say, I never had a hobby. I like to read, but that doesn’t really count. Or if it does, it’s not enough.

It sort of feels like when you break up from one of those terrible relationships with a domineering partner. After the relationship is over you go shopping by yourself and you keep asking what would so-and-so like? Then you realize that so-and-so’s opinion doesn’t matter anymore, but you don’t know what dress to pick because everything you’ve done for the past thirty years has been to please him!

“I am going to smack you,” says Mr. Octopus.

“No, no. I’m fine.”

“Then why are you crying? There, therrre, bups…you know, you may be deluded with all this destiny stuff, but I have to say, I admire your conviction. You just keep holding onto your little light.”

A very cool older gentleman that I met on retreat recently had an idea. He suggested I find a room of my own. A place where I can go, away from the distractions of home to just be. Just be with my stuff. Just listen. I took this request to my ancestor altar and followed up by asking several artist friends about renting studio space. I even asked a neighbor if I could rent out a room in her empty apartment until she found tenants. None of these leads worked out and truth be told, I cannot afford another two hundred bucks a month for a listening space.

I was just about to give up on my search when my future in-laws showed up for a visit. We all went to the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. Now, Mr. Conan-future-husband is an artist himself and when he goes to the museum, he goes with an agenda. Also, as a natural pack leader, he is not open to me staying behind and catching up with everyone later. The pack has to stay together. Fine. It’s his thing.

Actually, his attitude was a gift. While being dragged through the modern art wing by my retinas, I made mental notes to myself of all the things I wanted to look at more closely during another visit. I imagined that I would return alone and just wander around and that’s exactly what I did.

The museum is open several nights a week until 9:45 pm. Except for the occasional tours, which are easily avoided, or the couple out on a date, it is easy to get lost in galleries and have long quiet moments to myself. Also, check it out, Mr. Conan works as an installer at several museums throughout the city so I can go as often as I want for free!

So I go. I roam for hours. I take my shoes off and sit down and let myself be washed with beauty. And I suddenly realize, I have found my listening room. I remember as a child, I would sit and pour over my mother’s art books for hours like this. I would place myself inside the painting. Sometimes I do that (John Singer Sergeant “A Capriote” 1878). Or sometimes I really get into the story (Winslow Homer “The Fog Warning” 1885: A lone fisherman in a tiny rowboat in rough waters. Will he make it home? He’s looking over his shoulder at the fog rolling in. He must be a strong fella. Two big fish in his boat, probably cod, etc.).

I don’t know if being the crazy lady at the museum is my destiny, but I found something to love, and that’s enough for now.


One response to “Tai’s Room

  • Ken Ludden

    Ah Tai, you have given us another priceless gem. As a fellow professional dancer from an earlier generation on stage, I found that ‘listening space’ in museums early thanks to my mother being a fine artist. The first was the Rothko room at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, DC. I had such pleasure there I began finding others.

    At the Corcoran Gallery in that same city it was an old Italian painting, almost a miniature, that had an innocuous name like “The Couple”. It was just head and shoulders of a man in the foreground with a scroll under his arm, gazing intently ahead as if in a determined hurry. Beside him and slightly ahead, in the background, with her head turned toward him was a young woman who looked concerned. As if he had a manifesto on that scroll that might start a revolution or war and she was concerned. Or any one of a thousand stories I invented for that painting.

    At the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in DC was a Morris Lewis ‘Unfurled’ that could send me galaxies away, but also other individual works that ‘worked’ for me.

    Soon I learned that anywhere there was an exhibit of Helen Frankenthaller I had a celestial home there, and the same with Sam Gilliam, Arthur Dove, Gaston Lachaise, Paul Klee and Robert Motherwell.

    But on my 19th birthday I found myself without a reservation in Amsterdam, and on August 2, that means no room at the inn for all Europeans have fled to cities on the water. So I got a train to Den Hag and found a place called “Gallerie des Nouvelles Images” that was quite identical to “The Torpedo Factory Art Center” in Alexandria, Virginia. Both places have works by living artists, who work on the premises. Well, on the top floor was a room that was a work of art. They arranged for an artist to come in and “do” the room, which then stayed as a single work of art for a number of months. That day in 1971 the theme chosen by the artist was ‘Treatise.’ And around the room were artists’ statements (things like Bauhaus, Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, etc. were represented by displayed reproductions and also books, manuals and posters having to do with philosophies or schools of art.

    There hanging on the way was a reproduction of a work with no title, no artist, no apparent signature that snatched me from reality and branded itself into my heart and soul. I stayed in front of it for hours, until it was time to close. I went back the next day and sat before this work all day. I was offered coffee in the morning by the man who kept the museum, then soup, and eventually we spoke as the sun was setting and he invited me to sleep in the room. So I stayed, but couldn’t sleep. I asked the man what the painting was, but he did not know.

    On leaving Amsterdam I couldn’t shake this, and my other ‘listening rooms’ were now all lackluster by comparison to this painting. So I searched and searched, and a few years later discovered the work in a book. It was by an artist named Oscar Kokoshka called “The Wind’s Bride.” I learned from the book it was hanging in Basel, Switzerland. I went and bought a plane ticket that day for my next break (no Internet, just travel agents) and went to find the work. When I came upon it I was riveted, for unlike the reproduction in Den Hag that was about 19″ x 24″, this painting filled most of the wall. I stood in front of it for hours and eventually the guard offered to bring me a chair. That day I spent 9 hours, the next 11, and so forth for every minute the museum was open. I made 9 such trips to Basel, just to stay in that ‘listening room’ and eventually started choreographing a ballet in my head of the couple in the painting.

    In the end I did the ballet, and the dancers came with me to Basel on one of my pilgrimages, to sit before that work. Do you remember?

    And the premier was in Miami, with another performance in Lexington, and between a few casts it has been now done many places, including a performance for 12,000 in the museum in Basel where the painting hangs.

    You may have disliked ballet for the personal price you paid, but when you danced the role of the woman in that painting, the entire world was able to hear what I had heard in the listening room of that painting for decades. Your immeasurable talent, and sublime artistry brought the profound experience of that work to many people. You brought it to life.

    During my years in Boston, I found a place to go listen that you might want to try. It is a small museum called the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In it there is a central courtyard that is like the best of botanical gardens and fine art, and also a painting in a location of the museum called the Spanish Cloister. In it hangs a painting by John Singer Sargent (a art brute I do not care for, but a magnificent painter without doubt) called El Jaleo, painted for Isabelle Stewart Gardner almost against her will. It is a masterwork, not at all the abstract and contemporary art I cherish most, but it is my Boston listening room.

    Keep listening…


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