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St. Sebastian

As a child, long before I turned my attention to tragic heroines and their male counterparts, I was drawn to mortal injury and related suffering. There is no explanation for the deep and satisfying emotions I got from the pictures I hunted in my father’s Professorial Library; I suspect it is the same dark, human impulse that draws people to jars of embalmed fetuses and preserved tattoos skinned from intriguingly inked corpses.

I had, at my disposal, hundreds of beautiful images in the art books that lived in our house. Sixteenth century Flemish Madonnas offering apple-like breasts to blonde baby Jesuses (Jesi?), pages and pages of Botticelli seraphim, Watteau confections,  DaVinci drawings, Magritte and Dali oddities and Picasso in all his various incarnations. Because my father taught about art, and because we often saw art “in situ,” I was unfazed by the parade of breasts, fleshy pink thighs and penises of varying sizes. I was only vaguely interested in the evolution of vanishing point perspective, abstract vs. representational, or the finer points of bas relief, fresco or chiaroscuro. What I liked was the intense, the dramatic, and the emotional. Anyone could whip out a random body part, but getting shot full of arrows was an altogether superior thrill.


Which brings me to my childhood favorite, St. Sebastian.  In a lovely Hyperion volume of 14th and 15th Century Italian paintings,  I found Mantegna’s painting of Sebastian smack in the middle of his martyrdom. Ordered by Diocletian to be shot to death, Sebastian managed to survive, was killed again more efficiently, and eventually canonized. I loved everything about the painting. I loved it that he looked so sad, that his skin was so very pale, and that (even at seven or eight) I knew that there would really be a lot more blood if someone had been shot with eight arrows. It spoke to me of something dark and supernatural, magical even. I had no religious training, no concept of saints or martyrs, and my responses to iconography were both honest and macabre.

“Daddy,” I said one night before bed, “why did they do this? Was he bad?”

“No,” my father answered, doing that sucking thing he did with a pipe to make it light. “He was a martyr.” I kind of knew the word; it was what my mother called my father when he was driving to her parents’ house in Ohio even though it was snowing. “Catholics believe that certain people who die because of their religious beliefs can become saints.” I knew some things about saints; his mother was Catholic, and had given me a book about St. Francis. She also carried a St. Christopher medal, although I believe St. Christopher was subsequently de-mobbed. I knew about St. Patrick’s Day, and that Santa was really “Saint Nick,” and lots of places were called Saint Something-or-other.

“But why did they want to kill him in the first place? What did he do?”

“He was a Christian at a time when lots of people didn’t like Christians, and he made a powerful person very angry, so he was given a choice of saying he wasn’t really Christian, or being killed. He chose to be killed.”

“But that’s stupid!” He drew, meditatively on his pipe.

“I’m inclined to agree with you about that, but there are millions of people who think otherwise. They think that dying for your religious beliefs means you really believe them and trust that you will be taken care of in heaven.”

“Do you think that?”

“No, but your Grammie does. Some people do, and some people don’t. I think there are causes worth standing up for, and maybe dying for, but for me that isn’t one of them.”

“Is it for Momma?” I asked, tracing a small finger over Sebastian’s right leg, pierced with an arrow in the same way I had been taught to draw an arrow piercing a Valentine heart. That was another one – Saint Valentine. “Is it for me?”

“It isn’t for your mother, because Jewish people don’t have any saints. They tend to be hurt and killed because of what they believe, but a lot of times it isn’t because they choose to take a stand, it’s because people are prejudiced against them. You know about Hitler, right?” I nodded, somber. We had discussed Hitler at great length because of an episode of “Star Trek.” I also understood, in some impressionistic way that a lot of my mother’s ancestors had come to America from Russia and Hungary because Very Bad Things were happening to them just because they were Jewish.

“As for you, I don’t know. Momma and I won’t tell you to do anything like that because it isn’t what we believe, but some day when you’re grown up you might find that you believe in something you find for yourself.” This seemed reasonable, safe, and sufficiently distant that I didn’t need to worry about it. “Isn’t it time you went to bed?” It was. Carefully, I flipped the tissue-thin protective page back over St. Sebastian’s lovely, tragic face and replaced the book on the shelf. I was not always so careful, but my father, he of the “handle the slide by the edges,” “handle the record by the edges,” was sitting right there watching me. I knew he loved me even when I threw the records on top of each other so that they got scratched, but why take unnecessary chances?

Soon I would discover other soul-piercing images to savor; the American Heritage volume with the picture of Lincoln dying in his bed, Titian’s “Entombment,” El Greco’s “Lamentation” and Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” I knew little about Lincoln’s assassination, and less about the crucifixion of Christ, but the frozen moments of pain, longing, loss and unimaginable grief spoke volumes.





When my father retired, he gave away a lot of books. Although the Hyperion volume was not really from his office, and was therefore not properly part of the bounty, he placed it on top of the pile of books I had chosen. “I seem to remember,” he said, pausing as if drawing on the pipe he had given up forty years ago “that this was a particular favorite of yours.”

Sometimes, when I feel as lost and misunderstood as poor, pale, Sebastian tied to a column, I open the book and visit him. I try not to cry on him. It’s an expensive book.

Every now and then, turning carefully the pages that long ago parted ways with the binding, I swear that I smell pipe tobacco.


Photo Credits:

St. Sebastian: h



El Greco:



The Etsy Girl

I have, of late, been living in the Land of Etsy. I buy things that strike my fancy, usually small things, sometimes odd things. I bought most of my Christmas gifts there, and the vast majority of my own wish list came from my Etsy “favorites.” As I write, I am wearing a necklace that is the most simple, elegant and lyrical of silver crescent moons. I coveted it for months, and was as thrilled to receive it from my husband as any woman has ever been in one of those ridiculous, jewelry store ads. Keep your cheesy diamonds; I am in love with my hand crafted moon, just the right size to fit around my index finger when I’m feeling fidgety. (Every kiss really begins with “E”).

moon necklace

I have, for quite a long time, been deeply disenchanted with mass merchandising and retail in general. There was a time when I got excited because Liberty of London was launching a line at Target, but the older I got, the more I felt drawn to things made by hand, be they technically “art” or “craft.” I also grew exhausted by the bright falseness of the stores that used to offer “retail therapy.” I am no longer exhilarated by the rows of merchandise that speak of easy bounty; I find them macabre in this economy. These days, I am drawn to the repurposed, the upcycled, the handcrafted and the fair trade. Even more, I want a connection to a person who has put a bit of herself into the creation of my mug, scarf or notecard. I liked it that no one else has one just like mine, and I am thrilled to support working craftspeople, and do it without burning a drop of fossil fuel.

There is also a delicious three-part adventure involved in an Etsy purchase. There is the hunt, as delicious, tentative and heady as falling in love. Sometimes it’s a coup de foudre – I saw a watercolor of a cat, fork in hand, looking balefully at a plate of peas and I wanted it. The artist’s work evoked Beatrix Potter, Tasha Tudor, and made me smile every time I looked at it. Other times I fall in love after a long hunt, searching by keyword, narrowing my choices like a dating service, and then realizing that I keep returning to look at that mug, which is apparently my soul mate among drinking vessels. The second part is the purchase and anticipation, during which I know that something lovely is coming in the mail, and finally, there is the day when the purchase arrives swathed in bubble wrap or newspaper. I receive things in tiny, adorable drawstring bags, Kraft brown boxes tied with snips of twine and tiny charms, and wrapped in remnants of quilt fabric. Often, there is a bit of lagniappe included, maybe a few sample vials of perfume oil or a translucent sliver of obsidian. Although I paid for them, and even if I bought them to give to someone else, each Etsy packages is like a gift prepared for me with care and love.

Now that I’m warmed up a little, I will admit the true, beating heart of my Etsy obsession: I have rich fantasies in which I am The Etsy Girl. When the world presses down hard, I retreat to the alternate universe in which I live in an apartment in Brooklyn. It has exposed brick, and is located over a shop selling artisanal cheeses. Above me is a flat rooftop where we garden in the summer, and my apartment includes a large studio space with long tables made from salvaged doors on sawhorses. When I am not at my job creating window displays, I am making something beautiful in my studio. I look very much like Zooey Deschanel (with brown eyes), wearing fingerless gloves and holding a handmade mug with its own Fair Isle mug cozy. Some guy with hair falling into his eyes and the perfect amount of stubble is sitting in a sprung armchair in the corner playing his guitar and singing. Before we make ourselves some vegan enchiladas for dinner, I will pack up my orders to send out the following morning. I do not own a television set, my clothes are all vintage (except the Doc Martens my parents got me for Christmas), and I am sweet and totally post-ironic.

When I browse Etsy, and something stops me cold, I ask myself “what would the Etsy Girl think?” The answer is that she would think it was quirky, and interesting, maybe not her “thing,” but the expression of someone’s creativity and therefore valid and worthy of respect. I do not love everything I see, and I am well aware of Regretsy, but I find that Etsy is actually a very interesting window into other worlds, particularly in the context of items that make me scratch my head and wonder why anyone would create or buy them. I am not, of course, The Etsy Girl. Well, mostly I’m not. I can look at an offering from my point of view as a middle-aged, Midwestern wife and mother and think that I would never buy or use certain things…but someone would, and someone else imagined and created them, and the mental exploration of those sellers and buyers is a rich vein of creative gold.

Best of all, for me, anyway, I have been inspired to create again. I am about to learn needle felting, and I can’t wait to look through piles of candy colored wool roving and take it home to follow its lead. I recently ordered a set of ridiculously cheap chandelier prisms and created a funky sort of make-do sun catcher by suspending them from ribbons tied to a piece of wood I found on a walk. I am not The Etsy Girl, but there is something in that virtual world that moves me and brings to life that long-haired vegan girl in a vintage sweater and a ring with a raven on it. I kind of love her.


Streaming Live

I am rarely confused with James Joyce. Only occasionally does someone say “is that Ann Nichols’ work, or early Joyce lost under a barrel of aging Jameson’s until the distillery moved to Killarney?
I do read, Joyce, though, and a woodcut of him hangs over my desk. We are melancholy Irish writers, James and I; we see a world in which there is ineffable and unexpressed sorrow, as well as indescribable joy. One of us is entirely Irish, dead and famous, and the other…not so much. I feel a kinship with him, though, that goes beyond having a grandmother named Helen Murphy and a fondness for a fine, sad ballad. I have always been drawn in by his stream of consciousness writing, not always understood it, most often not understood it, but felt that if I could let go and stop parsing, stop thinking, I could slip into that stream and get close to being in someone else’s brain. 
I expend such energy in writing the right words, the most perfect words to express my thoughts, but what actually goes on in my head is a disorderly and irrational jumble with fugue-like themes and roads that lead nowhere. I imagine that everyone’s thoughts are like that, but I don’t really know; it is possible that other people have minds like Rolodexes, California Closets or the gardens at Versailles. Reading Joyce, I know that at least one other person wandered as I do, and because he set his wanderings to the music of literature I know that such a thing is possible. 
I have never studied Joyce, aside from an exhausting and demoralizing dissection of “Dubliners” in A.P. English, so I know that my anti-analysis leaves me open to the more knowledgeable types who have read monographs, written theses and understand in some objective way the reasons for how Joyce wrote, the method to his seductive madness. I don’t want to know. My grandmother, Helen Murphy with her strawberry gold hair and freckles, used to attempt Ulysses annually. She did not claim to “get” it, even when she was old enough to be my grandmother, and she did not go at it with the tools that allowed her to do crosswords ink. It was poetry, to her, it was an annual ride down a road familiar in some ways and yet altered by the odd pebble or rut of another year of life. 
I am no James Joyce, but I am coming into this delayed spring with words tumbling through my mind, flowing, blocked by dams of work, and sleep and other-focus, and released again. I have some control, I can choose to sort and clarify, to create something complete that is an offering to the reader. I can restrain, refine, and edit. It is craft, it makes a fine gift, like whittling a branch into a small, smooth flute or baking cherries, flour and fat into a shatter-crusted pie with a heart on the top.
What, though, if I let the words run, trying not to give them structure but to take dictation from the wildest, darkest, most hedonistic and undisciplined parts of myself? What if, instead of a flute I presented a particularly beautiful branch of poplar and a shining knife? What if I gave you only a bushel of bright, glossy cherries, a canister of flour and a pound of good, sweet butter? What would you make of an unfinished gift, sincere, raw, made whole only by your hands? 
What would we make?

Could a Monkey with a Computer Compose Beethoven’s Fifth?

A friend sent me a link yesterday to an article about a Man named David Copes, who has created artificial intelligence software that composes music. So far, so good. The issue is that Cope’s software composes music that is, in some cases, virtually indistinguishable from the work of a human composer. Music in which the software derived Bach’s rules to produce music in the style of Bach, for example, has fooled an audience unable to distinguish “real” Bach from music composed by the program.

This really ticked people off.

Cope, who began his project because he genuinely wanted to create beautiful music, takes the view that there is no inherent superiority in music or writing created by a human artist rather than a computer. (Apparently,  in addition to composing music, software can be created to replicate Shakespearean sonnets, among other things).

In his view, all music — and, really, any creative pursuit — is largely based on previously created works. Call it standing on the shoulders of giants; call it plagiarism. Everything we create is just a product of recombination.

Despite being lambasted by many in the artistic and scientific community, Cope continues to use his software for the purpose he originally envisioned: working with it to compose original works that he hopes will move and enchant listeners as traditional compositions have done for centuries. In response to criticism that a machine can’t possibly create art that speaks to the receiver in the same way as Rilke or Rachmaninov, he answers that humans do not create art from some magical hollow tree of the soul; they assemble and build from what came before, consciously or not. The finished product may be a breathtaking assemblage, but it is always, always based on and related to every sound the artist has ever heard, every word she has ever read, and all of the other art she has observed.

[Cope] is now convinced that, in many ways, machines can be more creative than people. They’re able to introduce random notions and reassemble old elements in new ways, without any of the hang-ups or preconceptions of humanity.

“We are so damned biased, even those of us who spend all our lives attempting not to be biased. Just the mere fact that when we like the taste of something, we tend to eat it more than we should. We have our physical body telling us things, and we can’t intellectually govern it the way we’d like to,” he says.

In other words, humans are more robotic than machines. “The question,” Cope says, “isn’t whether computers have a soul, but whether humans have a soul.”

I am happy for Mr. Cope, in a we-are-all-humans-let’s-embrace-humanity kind of way, and I agree with him that the art that we see does not spring whole from the head and heart of an artist, but is made up of bits and pieces of everything the creator has ever heard, seen or experienced. Sometimes it’s very clear – Vivaldi did write a lot of very similar works in the process of growing and refining his composition, and it is nearly impossible to write anything without the influence of everything you have ever read. It may be true that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and I’m okay with that.

I admit, though, to a sense of loss, and to feeling foolish for believing that I have found, in art, the messages of artistic souls yearning to be heard. When I read a short story that stuns me with its beauty, am I really just reading a sliced and diced version of all of the Carver, James and Elliott that the writer read in the past? If I sit listening to Vaughan Williams “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” and watching the falling snow, am I moved by nothing more than Vaughan Williams regurgitation of Tallises regurgitation of some other music he had in his subconscious? Are the artists that I love really nothing more than masterful assemblers of the flotsam and jetsam of life, giving me not a unique expression of their visions, but a skillful packaging job? Do they really have less soul than computer software?!

There is also, of course, the question of whether a person like me should bother to write. I have long believed that I was telling stories that were unique to my experience, and filtering them through some spiritual lense that was as unique to me as a snowflake or a fingerprint. I knew I had influences, of course, but now I wonder whether I am actually creating or inventing anything new and useful, or merely shining a light on what was already there, relying on ideas, turns of phrase and syntax that are already filed in my mind (and, possibly, in yours). If I delight myself because I have  found the perfect phrase, am I just a deluded idiot who is channeling something I heard on the bus, or read in a poetry anthology years ago? If it is true, as Cope claims, that I am “more robotic than a machine” by virtue of my inability to master my biases and impulses, that I may, in fact, have no soul, yearning or otherwise, what’s the point?

Here’s what I think, what I can accept and live with. All artists are building on the sights, sounds and experiences of the natural world, and the art of their predecessors or contemporaries. The assembly of those influences is, perhaps, the art – there is a voice, there is a desire to communicate, to create an emotional response or make a statement, but the creative act involves our own (non-artificial) intelligence, and yes, or souls. It isn’t important to me, really, that a painting, a poem or a string quartet was imagined in some hermetically sealed artistic vacuum; it matters that the artist used and built on the world around him to make something new and unique in its evocative powers. If a computer can do it too, I can live with that, and who knows; I might come to love music composed by artificial intelligence as much as I love Brahms and Monk. I will never, however, believe that it has more soul, or that it has been wrought to form that beautiful, filamentary bond that exists between an artist and her audience.

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