Ballet Dancer (Matisse)

We were visiting the city because I needed to get through the next six weeks of the semester. I needed to see tall buildings, I needed an art museum. One afternoon we went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and stared at its collection of Matisse paintings, on loan from Baltimore, until our eyes watered. It felt nourishing and refueling. Filling me up, filling a space.

When I close my eyes, I often see small flashes of light. Sometimes they look like latticework, tiny bluish branches of electricity. I’ve asked my ophthalmologist about it (don’t worry, Mom). It’s one variety of what’s called ectopic phenomena – meaning I’m seeing the weird flotsam and jetsam that actually exist inside my eyeball. Possibly caused by near-sightedness. Not dangerous. Very common. If you stare long enough, you will never just see plain blank black inside your eyelids. There is always something there. Sometimes, faces.

If you search ectopic phenomena online, you will find some loonies that think they’re auras. Things of a spiritual nature. Like you’re seeing the real energy of the universe connecting us in one giant net: shimmering.

Next to his painting “Ballet Dancer Seated on a Stool,” there was this quote by Matisse which I have been thinking about ever since:

Before, when I didn’t know what color to put down, I put down black. Black is a force: I use black as ballast to simplify construction.

My first thought was how to achieve the same idea with the written word. I wrote down in my notebook: as with line breaks? Force instead of space – but what’s opposite of space?

Wordlessness must be something writers think about in the fall. The world holds its breath waiting for the first snowfall and hoping it will never come. You go to speak but white warm air comes out instead. When you don’t know or don’t want to know the end to a story, it is challenging to write it at all – to know where to begin. You have to have something in the space before you can put the words down.

Reverse ouroboros: everything you put down is wrong, misattributes, seems like an intrusion. So you delete what you have and go back to blank.

I see so many stories around me all the time, stories so meaty and perfect for the setting. I live in a place and I interact with people of some degree of downheartedness. Miscarriages and dead siblings and addiction and trucks parked inexplicably on train tracks and two, three, four lives snuffed out in one blind battering rush.

I have a hard time writing these stories because one, they are often my students and at some point I must not have any feeling about their stories but bite my tongue and give them an F, which is truly my one and only job, and two, they are so cyclical. There is, as of yet, no transformation. Only hope the stories will change, and hope they will change, and hope they will change.

I see the need for a fallback, like Matisse and his black. Something to fill the space when I feel like I have nothing else to say. Something I can build on.

I have started doing yoga. When I sit there in attempted total silence and presence, I find myself in a comical dialogue with my brain. It refuses to go blank. It leaps forward to anticipate what I will eat when I get home; it replays useless awkward conversations at the gas station; it has little epiphanies of compassion, pleasure, love. Yes, brain, I tell it. You are very, very smart. You are totally right. But just. Shut. Up.

I have my eyes closed in this tiny upstairs studio where you can smell pot smoke and gasoline from below. My teacher whispers her directions. Sometimes a blip of light, a gently pulsing amoeba will float by. Driving home, all the streetlights seem very, very bright.


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