Today I saw a prompt on Facebook: “Tell me about a work of art that changed your world view.” This made me think hard, and I realized there are many! I thought I would devote this post to three of them.
Story number 1
This story is not about a specific work of art, but about one element found specifically in Buddhist art. Back in 1999 I was taking a class in Indian art at the University of Washington, and I was also brewing chai at Morning Glory Chai. In fact the whole reason I took this class was because there were so many depictions of Indian gods and goddesses around the chai house that I wanted to know more about them. In one class the teacher was talking about the ushnisha on the Buddha’s head. The ushnisha is often defined as Buddha’s topknot, and it is a representation of the wisdom that leads to enlightenment, but it is is a symbol with many other possible meanings. There’s an interesting article about the origin and meaning here. In Southeast Asia there was frequently a flame found on top of the topknot, and many old statues even have holes in the topknot where a flame, either of wood or metal, would have been attached as a separate piece. Sometimes the flame is represented by a jewel.
For the past thirty years I have pulled out my hair. It started when I had chicken pox back when I was ten, and pulling my hair out was the only way to scratch the chicken pock on the top of my head. Trichotillomania has been a defining feature of my life as the bald spot on my head grew from being the size of a quarter to taking up most of my head now. Back in 1999 I was still able to cover it with my own hair worn in a bun. My mother, being a devotee of all things mystical, said that she thought it was a physical manifestation of overactivity in my crown chakra. I hadn’t yet dived into learning about the chakra system yet when I learned of the ushnisha, but I was fascinated that there was iconography for what I perceived on a personal level as the buzzing and itching I feel on the top of my head.
After learning about the ushnisha I went to work, thinking about it on the bus all the way there. When I was brewing chai one of the kettles boiled over and doused the flame beneath it, a common occurrence. We used gas stoves, each with a 25 gallon pot of water sitting on top. I was also a dumbass who knew nothing about gas safety, so I turned the gas on full bore and bent down to light the fire at eye level. A huge fireball exploded into my face!
I had counted death by fire as one of my biggest fears up to this point, so I was surprised by my own response to this situation. As I watched the fireball roar toward my face my thought was very nonchalant, “I’m going to die and that’s a shame. My parents will be so sad. Oh well.” That was literally it. To my amazement I didn’t die, and stood up in one piece. I wasn’t exactly overjoyed that I was still alive, and that too struck me. Apparently life and death were to me states that weren’t too different from one another. However, when I stood up my coworker who was washing bottles beside me screamed, “Your hair’s on fire!” and threw her glass of water over the top of my head. Yup, it was the very top of my head that had caught fire, right where the Buddha’s ushnisha would be found.
I was profoundly shaken by the event, though not hurt, but I also marvelled at the synchronicity and personal relevance of this. I like to say that “coincidence is the language of magic.” At the time I had no idea what this could mean. I knew that I was meant to go on living, and I felt I had gained wisdom through this experience, not only of gas safety, but that on a deep level I was not afraid of death.
Story number 2
I went to the Monet exhibit in Portland, OR around the same time. This exhibit was extra special because it included some of Monet’s biggest canvases, very rarely seen in the United States.
I stood in front of a huge painting of waterlilies around a bridge, straining my eyes to see what exactly was being depicted. The card on the wall mentioned that Monet was struggling with his eyesight at the time, so I figured I would try to see it the way he did. I stood back and took off my glasses. Without my glasses I’m so blind I can’t recognize faces two feet in front of me, but this was exactly the right point of view for these paintings! Now the waterlilies were obvious, the bridge was clearly a bridge, and the whole composition made sense. Best of all, I now felt that my nearsightedness was actually a superpower. All I had to do was take my glasses off to see the world like one of the greatest painters? I felt bad for all the people around me with perfect eyesight. Having two modes of physical sight is pretty awesome.
Monet also had cataract surgery which may have given his vision a reddish hue from then on, possibly affecting his later paintings as well.
I also remembered that Seinfeld episode where George’s dad had a theory that all the impressionists were actually just nearsighted, and I felt he was probably right.
Story number 3
This only happened a couple of years ago. I had been on a huge Schubert kick, and still am, taking the time to listen to all of his songs and organize them into playlists by subject. It’s odd, but sometimes one will just hit me out of nowhere with an emotional intensity that’s hard to bear, even if I had listened to it many times before with no emotional response at all. I had heard Nacht und Träume (that’s Night and Dreams in English) many times over the years, but my mind just seemed to not register it. I made a playlist on my Ipod of all of Schubert’s songs about the night – or the moon, stars, and constellations, so of course this song was included. Then one day I stood in the rain listening to this playlist for about the tenth time as I waited for the bus in downtown Seattle.
Nacht und Träume came on and the world became liquid. The song finally worked its magic on me as I saw every person as soluble, their edges blurring, becoming one with the rain. The only permanence anyone seemed to have in the face of this music was that of their deepest dreams and disappointments...insofar as those even have any permanence.
I got on the bus and put the song on repeat, curled up and crying in my seat hoping the person sitting next to me didn’t notice. Seriously, what the heck was wrong with me? We passed over the West Seattle Bridge. I stared through the raindrops on the window as the streetlights passed by in a gliding, continuous rhythm, perfectly matching the measures of the music. The mundane world felt heartbreakingly beautiful on this bus ride. Night and dreams, rain and tears, beauty and pain. All humanity became one with me, our pain and our hopes being the same, running and mingling into one another like raindrops on a bus window.