Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore
I chose that quote to title my blog because man does it feel applicable. My favorite part about the whole thing is Dorothy saying she has a "feeling," as if being blown in a tornado and dropped in a colorful world with flowers and strange houses wasn't a clue enough that she was definitely not in Kansas. But I know what she means, sometimes we're blown around and we land and look around and think, well my world has flowers and houses, and this world has flowers and houses, maybe I am still in Kansas. It takes a minute to realize you're not at all where you started and you're not sure if you are happy or sad about that.
It’s been making me think a lot about landscapes, vistas, viewpoints, and how the way we see them shapes our perspective and ultimately our experience. Driving back from school everyday I pass a large rice field. I drive at the point where the sun is just beginning to set and the early evening rose light sets in. I am reminded of the American Romantic landscapes of the late 1850's. Large landscapes bathed in golden light, with detailed depictions of jungles and mountains. One of my favorites is Fredrick Edwin Church’s The Heart of the Andes, 1859 (pictured below). An American painter trained at the Hudson River School, he found his way to South America during one of the less amazing moments in the history of white American men. During the 1800s America was a period of expansion, of growth. With the industrial revolution and the advent of train’s, spaces that could not be traversed before were now readily available for Western expansion. But that expansion did not stop there, it moved North, South and West and conquered, killed and over took anyone in its path to create their new world.
Church's work is no exception; it is a perfect epitome of this new world. Both haunting - and daunting, the scale itself (5 feet high by 10 feet long) feels ominous and overwhelming. Apparently when Church displayed this at the salon it was flanked by curtains and viewers were given opera spectacles to give the appearance of looking out. But it's also the eeriness I feel when looking off into the distance. The stillness of the trees, and the water, nothing is moving, everything is holding its breath. Off in the distance the mountains loom and you see the giant shadows of clouds reflected on the trees and you feel the sense of the unknown upon you. If you peer close enough you see two men paying their respects to a white cross, no doubt a sign of death – of this wild, unpredictable jungle taking a man's life - but also the death of a people, of a culture, of the beginnings of Christianity moving into this landscape. As the sun begins to set in this painting I look at it and imagine Melisandre staring into the abyss whispering, "For the night is dark and full of terrors." The reality is that the "heart of the Andes" has no place for humans.
Just a few decades earlier humans were also confronting nature, only this time it was across the world in Japan in the 1830’s. One of the most iconic works is Under The Wave Off Kanagawa, AKA the Great Wave. There is endless scholarly discussion on what Katsushika Hokusai was attempting to depict about life in this series (the Great Wave is only one of thirty-six prints about Mount Fuji). But what draws most viewers eyes to the work is not the mountain being dwarfed in the background, but the giant wave sweeping across the sky. For me I find myself attracted to the fishermen at the bottom of the page, rocking in their boats. They are not rowing frantically or dramatically trying to change fate, they lie in wait, ready to let the tsunami take them. I find it is a comforting reminder that no matter how hard we try nature is always stronger, the ocean is always stronger, possibly even more so than a mountain. Like an angered god, tsunami’s strike, earthquakes rumble, snow falls and even mosquitos bite and we as humans can do nothing but lie in our boats and wait for the great wave to take us.
After this week, and really this month, these people dwarfed by nature, so utterly helpless to its goings-on, solely placed to show just how large the world looms, felt like an accurate description of my mood. I just needed a new perspective. You get to Thailand and you feel like you have to swallow the happy pill everyday. Mostly because it seems that everyone around you is on it and hallucinating magical rainbow unicorns that make eating sweetened rice and chicken three times a day an amazing experience that they just looooovvve. And you think,
is it only me?
Am I the only one who never wants to hear the word pork fat again? and then all of a sudden you’re sitting quietly at lunch and someone whispers, so Thailand is hard right?
And you just breathe out.
Because yes of course Thailand is hard, and hard not only in the emotional sense but the physical too. The hard that comes from sleeping on a hard mattress, from students who don’t care, from education systems that are flawed, from buses that don’t run, from food that makes you vomit and shit and burn all the way down, and all the way out, from carrying a rock on your chest and pretending you’re not struggling. From the simple miracle that even speaking about how hard it is makes it seem less hard. From looking at paintings and realizing that since the dawn of time expansion has been hard, nature is hard and living life within those two is incredibly, and undeniably difficult.
As Charles Baudelaire said " Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling." And as I looked at myself, on the map of the world. Precisely situated not where I used to be, not exactly where I thought I would be, but rather just a pulsing blue dot, radiating out
and I thought I am here.
I am feeling.
my dot has changed,
and maybe, just maybe, that's enough for now.
p.s. Tried my hand at making a podcast-audio clip of this blog. Check it out and let me know what you think!