Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ancient Wisdom

Wandering through DIA museum in Beacon, NY, I'm aware of the rain continuing to fall outside. It offers a layer of sound, which complements the wide open space. Long corridors, red brick walls, and incredibly high ceilings remind of its origins as a Nabisco box-printing facility before it was re-purposed to hold unusually large pieces of art. Skylights and big windows contribute to the sense of spaciousness. Walking through, it's easy to follow an impulse without knowing what's around the corner.

Today I'm drawn toward an immense, curved metal structure shaped and colored like the rusting hull of a small ship. It's a sculpture by Richard Serra entitled, Elevational Wedge. Moving beside it as I circle the full shape, the sensation of flowing feels like dancing with a partner who knows how to lead and follow at the same time. Coming full circle, my body feels a slingshot effect.

Inner space opens into outer space as I'm pulled, like a spaceship as gravity swings it into a different trajectory. Finding myself going downstairs, this dance flows into a universe of Serra's expansive vision of space being time. Next thing I notice is the cooling comfort of the gigantic sculptures, which transport me to the Canyonlands of southern Utah, a region I explored with a dear friend years ago.

A week earlier, I'm co-facilitating a group entitled, Ancient Wisdom and Well Being at an Adult Day Treatment Center for clients living with HIV. Many of these folks report history of homelessness, violence, addiction, and mental illness. I serve as a clinical chaplain. My colleague Cesar, a psychotherapist, is co-facilitating. His specialization is Mindful Recovery.

Framing this session in terms of body wisdom, I guide clients in experiential exercises to pay attention to body posture while sitting and standing. Inviting reflections afterwards on this process, Cesar remarks, "I'm realizing my long standing relationship with gravity." For clients grappling with fears of abandonment, these words comfort as they educate.

One man who identifies as "spiritual" responds, "When I'm running, I feel His presence. The rhythm, breathing in through my nose, out through my mouth." A woman who at the outset of the group asks, "What should I do to know ancient wisdom?" now declares confidently, "Where my feet lead, my head will follow." We all agree to practice with paying attention to posture during the week ahead.

Back in metal canyonville, sounds feel like echoes. The room, while lighted, also exhibits a dark hue. I enter one massive sculpture, moving through it as if in a maze in near darkness. I hear laughter and the soft patter of approaching footsteps. Then, two kids, brother and sister, maybe 7 or 8 years old, round the bend and stream by, seemingly out of nowhere. They run past me, giggling. Soon, more youngsters appear as I glide through new sculptures.

Each kid explores the curves, some running hands along the walls, some with hands held out as if flying. They instinctively get whatever it is that feels captivatingly natural here. Their parents, watchful mostly, seem less enthralled and more attuned to observing the scene. I feel a tinge of sadness. Then, I see a boy and girl, also quite young, listening attentively as their dad tells them stories. He invites them to touch, to feel their way. The kids ask questions. They reflect the glint in their father's eyes as his enthusiasm ignites their own.

Richard Serra writes,
"What interests me is the opportunity for all of us to become something different from what we are by constructing spaces that contribute something to the experience of who we are."

A week later, I'm back in Manhattan, curving the island's southern tip, once more hugging the riverside. The place feels different. My sense of space is shifting. Again, feet lead the head. I emerge from the Esplanade, looking for the subway station, which has been an interim structure just north of South Ferry. This evening, the temporary entrance is locked up. A man and woman walking by offer assistance. "They finally opened the new station," he tells me, "We're walking there now."

The three of us walk together for several minutes, our feet's rhythm adjusting to one another's movements. We part ways at the entrance. I head downstairs and through the turnstile. A mural on the wall draws me closer. It's part of a new installation by Doug and Mike Starn entitled, See it Split, See it Change.

Images of silhouetted trees call attention. The bare branches strip the moment down to its essence. Deep silence ripples out like water behind the wake of a slowly moving ship.

This silence remains as a rumbling sound builds and fills the space. Hearing the train approaching, I head down to meet it.

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