Sunday, November 08, 2009

Walking into the Fire

Gary tells me I need to get back to blogging more. I always do what Gary says. So here's the start of my new East Village Magazine column. To see the rest, pick up hard copies around Flint starting Friday.

This month I’m starting my seventh decade. If the Biblically-allotted three-score and ten bears out, I’m down to the ten. It’s a bit shocking.
I’ve been experimenting with calling myself “60” for several months, but it still feels as if that ancient person with my name is somebody else.
Nonetheless, my left brain and the calendar tell the truth: I really was born in 1949.
According to family tradition (most of the principals are dead now, freeing me to embellish as needed), my mother went into labor after hitting a high note at choir practice at a little church in Ohio where my father was pastor.
Her labor, her third, was quick and easy and I was lifted out into the world by Dr. Homer Keck, a beloved neighbor and friend, before midnight. I’d like to think the rest of the choir – not exactly a band of angels, but a motley well-meaning bunch, were still singing. They were supposedly delighted by the fact of the preacher’s new baby, and I was born into an atmosphere of hope and joy.
There’s no way to know if any of this is true, but I’m grateful music – enthusiastic and a little off-key – was part of the hours just before my birth. I was born into music and art – albeit their religious branch -- and I have needed them later, when hope and joy, inevitably complicated by other realities, faltered and got harder to claim.
It’s art and music to which I increasingly find myself returning as I get old. I’ve recently rediscovered Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, for example, and I’ve been avidly absorbed by the spiraling, gorgeously complex movements loaded on my iPod as I walk the neighborhood. It reassures me: humans are capable of creating order and transcending evil.
And on a recent Friday afternoon, I had a chance to meander once again through the galleries of the Flint Institute of Arts. I cherished the pleasure of doing so with Kathryn Sharbaugh, the FIA’s assistant director of development and a fine teacher and ceramicist. As she told stories about the collection, I was touched anew by the power of two particular pieces.
First is a mask in the African art gallery. It’s from the Guro tribe of the Ivory Coast, and was a gift to the FIA from Justice G. Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams. It’s roughly a water buffalo, a feral, dog-like head with horns, jagged teeth and protruding, primal eyes. Sharbaugh said it was worn for ceremonial occasions – often to dance for rain.
What captivates me is the creature’s snout. Three or four inches up, it’s roughly coated with black ash. Here’s why: Sharbaugh said to get the gods’ attention, the dancer would sometimes walk right into the fire, dipping the mask into the flames.
That smoky snout stuck with me. At first the gesture of dancing into the fire seems reckless, even ignorant.
But who among us hasn’t had our trial by fire? And who among us, for that matter, hasn’t sometimes chosen to walk right into the heat of desperate action because there is no other way?

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