Sunday, May 2, 2010

Back to Me

I came across Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten in high school. By then it had already been on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years - which to a freshman pursuing "coolness" (with stunning futility, might I add) meant reacting in the same way other freshman pursuing a similar degree in coolness react. Roll eyes. Call everything lame. Declare "over it" with the most sublime apathy. To voice an affinity for something - anything - was to take a stand. Funny how cool I think doing just that is today. God, how freeing it is to be a nerd.

You've probably read it, but if you missed it or haven't revisited it in a while, Fulghum's book is a very cool collection of essays.

This poem by the author captures the essence if you're not the reading type:

Most of what I really need
To know about how to live
And what to do and how to be
I learned in kindergarten.
Wisdom was not at the top
Of the graduate school mountain,
But there in the sandpile at Sunday school.
These are the things I learned:
Play fair.
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life -
Learn some and think some
And draw and paint and sing and dance
And play and work everyday some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world,
Watch out for traffic, 
Hold hands and stick together.
Be aware of wonder.

This final scene from the pilot of The Wonder Years ends with some of my favorite lines in television history -as I know it, at least. Neil Marlens and Carol Black wove poetry onto the screen and we, the TV Generation, know all too well that to capture the fancy and interest of an increasingly apathetic audience requires an almost unprecedented mastery of prose:

"Whenever some blowhard starts talking about the anonymity of the suburbs or the mindlessness of the TV generation, we know that inside each one of those identical boxes, with its Dodge parked out front and its white bread on the table and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and the struggle of love. There were moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments, like that one, of sorrow and wonder." 

For a transcript like that, indeed we the TV Generation hold our heads up with pride. If you usually don't watch my clips, make an exception. It's a treasure.

I was at dinner with a friend earlier tonight, and she asked me, "What exactly does Back To A mean?" It means exactly this - to return to a state of wonder, because in times of sorrow and hardship or whatever wall life has constructed in your path, the only way to move beyond it is to remember a time of innocence. And then attempt the impossible, I suppose, but try and go back to it. Back to A - the beginning, the elemental, the earliest impulses.

So when I found myself in Central Park the other day and a portrait artist asked, "Can I make your portrait?" I paused. The usual thoughts did go through my mind - I'm a New Yorker, not a tourist - I don't have time for this - Do I really want to sit absolutely still for twenty minutes for a drawing that might suck? But then, there was something elemental and wonderful about this man, sitting near the edge of the park where the carriage rides are, asking my permission to draw. It's what he does for a living.

I couldn't believe it, but I found myself sitting down. There were still many bare walls in my new home, so why not have a portrait of me, now, walking through the park in the Spring of 2010?

Of course I snuck in a picture or two with my iphone, but mostly I sat quietly and stared at the trees over his shoulder. I can't remember the last time I sat absolutely still. My mother always tells me to meditate, and I'm quick with the "I am not Buddha" retaliation, but really it was quite. . . uplifting. I thought about a lot of things while he sketched, and in particular Robert Fulghum's poem. "He's absolutely amazing," a passing stranger shared, pausing to take a look. But I really didn't care how it turned out - now it would symbolize one of the first introspective, quiet moments I've had in a very long time.

For twenty minutes of beautiful silence and ten dollars, the artist gave me my first portrait of me now, at Back to A. As I watched him put the finishing touches, I knew I would treasure this drawing not only because he was gifted at capturing a likeness, but that the expression he had captured was one I have not seen in a very, very long time: total peace.

"How do I find you again?" I asked him. I wanted to refer him to my family and my friends - what an amazing gift - what a perfect way to spend some time in the park. "Do you have a phone number, or an email address? A card?"  He smiled as he matted the drawing and replied, "Nope. I don't have either. But I'm usually around here in the late afternoons." This made no sense to me, so I pressed onward: "But how do people reach you?"

He shrugged indifferently and asked, "What people? I think it's awful to be reached. And I always know where I am, which is the important part." He chuckled merrily and I had to smile. Really, there was nothing else I could do or say so I paid and thanked him - this solitary portrait artist at the edge of the park who has managed to spend a lifetime at A.

How awful, indeed, for those people so obsessed with being reached all the time, to not know the beauty of. . . not being reached. What to do with all that magical time?

Spread wonder in strokes of charcoal.


Anonymous said...

You know, I had been hungering for a new blog to sink my teeth into. A new story to follow. A life to witness. I'm so excited to have found you. Your writing style, your design sensibility, and your taste in canines are not to be understated. Kudos to you (and in Back to A style, I'm wondering if you, too, now have a mental image of the original Kudos box). Before the writing was cursive.

Nice to meet you.

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