2017 Nonfiction Award Winner, Chosen by Elena Passarello
The apartment we’ve rented for the remainder of our stay in New York is on the fifteenth floor, with a perfect view of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. At night, all of the city sprawls beneath us in glimmering lights and layers of black. There’s motion everywhere, but the distance carries the illusion of stillness, the frenetic chaos of the city summed up from afar as a soft twinkling. Only the sounds of the city blurt cacophonous through the two-inch lift of the windows, hitched up for the cool outdoors to temper the huffing radiator which has suffused the apartment with heat and cannot be adjusted. The air has a texture of people, voices, the machinery screech of buses, blaring cars, sirens. A thick palimpsest of ever-changing din, pungent, tripping over itself. Funny, when I’m in it, out in the busy streets, it all evens out into something like a hum, a three-dimensional weave, and there is a sense of peace, at just being one filament in the flow, a tiny spec in the city’s airy tapestry.
Home is Portland, Oregon, three thousand miles away, where I’ve lived the past ten years since I left New York City. In Portland right now I know the air is as it always is: quiet, flickered with light around the shadows of trees; an occasional roar of a car or bus running like a red line through the dancing greys and whites of the sky. In Portland, the house makes more noise than the city around it, a clumsy hum coming from the fridge day and night, branches rattling the gutters from the too-close cherry.
This is what it is to be alone, I think, suspended, a body on a bed, somewhere between the ground and sky. Erase the city around me, the thick heat and the three a.m. noise that keeps me from sleeping, the brick façade of the fifteen-floor building, the pigeons nested in the ledges, each black frame of the window, the rug and the walls and the bed, make it all disappear—and I’m floating. The solid foothold of earth far below. The sky, untouchable blue, above.
Sometimes there’s lift, there’s pull, there’s flow. The body separates. One part of you is physical: lying on a bed in the sky in Brooklyn; and the other part is wandering, perambulating the ethers, searching for the one place you most belong. As if there were such a static thing, and if it were nameable or owned.
In the seventeenth century, Baroque painters enlivened interiors (and minds) with quadratura, a trompe-l’oeil method of interior decor in which walls and ceilings were painted to look like the box of the room had opened up—to trick the eye into believing the ceiling was a sky ringed with cherubs; or, a flat ceiling, the interior of a majestic dome. It was an alchemy of the unreal and the real, employing elaborate Realistic methods to carry out the implausible whims of the imagination. A crafted fourberie, meant to achieve a sense of almost-believing, conjuring double-takes that question our sturdy grip on reality. These interior murals were also a way to lure nature back into a brick, mortar and fresco-flattened modernity.
The painterly trick of a ceiling brandished into the sky effects a sense of containment replaced by expansion. Two decades after the quadratura’s emergence in chapel decor, the surrealists would pull the veneer of the sky onto the canvas and into object art in all sorts of painted settings: in place of a man’s face, beneath the brim of an umbrella, and into the body proper. Quick-witted, irreverent, subversive, surrealism played with the strange fact that the almighty imagination reframes our reality when given the space to do so.
In bed, while I can’t sleep, I’m painting in my mind a quadratura in our temporary New York apartment. I want it to look as if the walls have disappeared just above the floorline, so that the apartment feels incredulously expansive, so high above the ground, open as if dangerously exposed. I see myself squatting on the floor, paintbrush in hand, exacting from a paint palette the effect of a crumbling low brick wall. Then I’ve built scaffolding up to the ceiling, so that I can pile on layers of irregular grey and white, making the sky as wild and unruly as it is in Oregon, with height and brightness and low dark clouds all at once, and the edges of trees leafing in, trimmed with sunlight. Between the low brick wall and the western sky—on the walls—I can’t decide what to paint. I’m tempted to paint New York, almost as it is right outside the window, because the vibrant, busy city captured into one frozen moment would be a miracle and paradox itself. But would I? If I could paint anything? A lush jungle maybe, to capture the exotic flair of as-if-being in two places at once. Or, the horizon line of the sky and sea, to bring a gorgeous sense of peace beneath the heavy clouds. I could paint a downy meadow spiked with wildflowers, turning my body in bed into Wyeth’s subject in Christina’s World, a girl alone in a field, unable to walk, a house in the distance, a moment of total isolation. Or, I might, instead, paint my favorite solitary place in New York City, where I feel both at ease and enthused: corridors of white museum walls dotted with paintings growing smaller and smaller in faux distance.
An art museum sandwiched between an Oregon sky and a New York City apartment. My quadratura of peace and plenitude. A collage-like composition of all-at-once.
Growing up I wanted more than any other thing the chance for independence and privacy with art. On family vacations, each kid got to pick one outing, and I always picked the art museum. I strayed as far from my family as I was allowed, so as to have my own long moment with each painting and sculpture, without the spoken comments, reflections, and associations of others to influence or aggravate me. Alone in the quiet white, surrounded in imagery, my heart pumping colors, a strange sensation of being aware of my skin. Each of these pieces was created, composed, deemed complete, selected, and exalted. Each was a masterpiece. A portal to the imagination.
In other phases of my life, I took drugs to roulette a quadratura into my consciousness. With mind-altering states, there‘s a feeling of letting go, like dreaming, and reading one’s own intuition, and surrendering to faith. You believe in the new drug-enhanced reality in order to fully enjoy it (or be afraid of it), and you believe you’ll return to the old familiar sober reality once the drug wears off (whether you realize it or not) because once you do come back, everything is as it was before the moment you placed it in your mouth. A suspension of disbelief can be a liberating thrill.
Shortly after I moved from New York City to Portland, Oregon, I found myself in a classroom of earnest West Coasters studying Eastern medicine. The instructor asked for everyone who had a spiritual practice to please raise their hand. And everyone raised their arm high except me. I was the lone stone in a sea of tall grasses. I was a new transfer student from a program in New York, in which we had learned of Taoism as a backbone of the medicine, and studied its cultural and historical contribution, but never had we discussed personal beliefs or religion, and never would my Chinese teachers in New York expect me to bring my spirituality into the practice. On the West Coast, with mostly non-Chinese teachers influenced by the New Age, all bets were off. Spirituality was fair game for discussion, integration, and maybe, a sense of obligation, or, at the least, a sort of responsibility. In that classroom, confused feelings surfaced, and I made myself immediately inferior, eyeing my confident classmates who could both assert their beliefs and carry on a daily expression of them. They were aligned in a way I’d never even searched for. Had I even know I was missing something? Was I? “You’ll find one, New York,” the instructor said dryly as he nodded toward me hunkered in my seat.
One year later, high on a mountaintop, asleep in a tent, I had a mystical experience of hypnagogia. I had spent the past few days wide-eyed and curious, as a guest at a Native American ceremony, and it was as if each day with the sun and the drumsong, between the night stars above and the dark heat within the sweatlodge, I was shedding something. A tight sheaf holding me into myself loosened, like skin molting, and my senses were exposed, more apt to perceive newness, and I was tender. In the sweatlodge, squeezed in among so many people, my legs tucked under my dress against the dirt, in this tiny womb-like dome, pitch blackness, the scent of cedar, the drumming and singing filling up the space and spilling into the ethers, my body resplendent with ease, calm and full. The words ran through my head like a loop: I am home, I am home, I am home. It felt like love, a great, universal love, something spiritual and all-encompassing, that I don’t know how to explain.
To be clear, I am an East Coast Jew raised in the suburban American South in the airtight home of a doctor and a teacher who never once took me camping. To feel a spiritual homecoming in an indigenous interior touches that hotspot of cultural appropriation that makes me cringe: a white person romanticizing Native American culture and wanting to somehow belong in it. But, I have to tell you in earnest, experiencing a spiritual environment in that moment—and the feeling of unspooling from my whole being—was more authentic than the thoughts and doubts that later followed. The feeling of spiritual connection trumped my individual resistance to it. Which is to say that I was open to it, to being carried away, and brought into the flow that for a moment washed out all the obstacles of my hard-headed questioning. For a very short while, I was free of doubts and I soared into the wild. And the experience left a mark on me, one that I can go back to time and again like a touchstone. Remember that feeling?
Have you ever felt it? In religion, or yoga, or sex, or meditation, or drugs, or music, or art? To me, it is fleeting and rare, an elixir to be hunted and cherished. I imagine, to others, it is more commonplace, or a practice, and, to others, still yet unknown. If I close my eyes and imagine the feeling of it in my body, I can sometimes conjure up a rift of it, an expansive freedom, a subtle levity. It’s like the veneer of the sky, a semblance of something expansive and intangible, but not the real thing. It is something sacred, to feel that. For me, the feeling is the antithesis of an existentialist mentality that both suffuses and suffocates me.
But it isn’t something that I’ve been able to hold onto. It’s like stumbling onto a rare weather pattern—rainbows and hail.
I’ve muttered spiritual questions to the air since I was a teenager. Growing up Jewish under the shadow of the Holocaust, in the 1980s, the South still thick with racism, sexism, classism, and ableism—questioning was all I could do to try to make sense of it all. Environmental destruction. AIDS. Reading too much Camus at too early an age. I wanted to know: how do we live a meaningful life while knowing that life leads us only towards death—uncontrollably and unpredictably. How do we hang onto it tightly enough to claim it and make it ours, but loosely enough so that when it goes awry it doesn’t undo us, forever broken?
Eyes closed, my mind wanders back to a dark stage, the smell of unlit cigarettes.
(The lights softly rise on DOCTOR MARTHA LIVINGSTONE.)
DOCTOR: I remember when I was a child I went to see Garbo’s Camille, oh, at least five or six times. And each time I sincerely believed she would not die of consumption. I sat in the theater breathless with expectation and hope, and each time I was disappointed, and each time I promised to return, in search of a happy ending. Because I believed in the existence of an alternate last reel. Locked away in some forgotten vault in Hollywood, Greta Garbo survives consumption, oncoming trains, and firing squads. Every time. I still want to believe in alternate reels. I still want to believe that somewhere, somehow, there is a happy ending for every story. It all depends on how thoroughly you look for it. And how deeply you need it. (silence)
This is the beginning to John Pielmeier’s play, Agnes of God. In the play, Martha Livingstone is a clinical psychologist sent by the court to evaluate the sanity of a young nun who is charged with infanticide, after a newborn is found in a trash can in her room in the abbey. When I was sixteen, I played the psychologist, Dr. Martha Livingstone, in our Repertory Theater’s production. True to the script, our play was plain: three actors and two chairs. It was really just about the words—the dialogue, this dialogue. We did it in the round, in a small black-box theater. We were all juniors or seniors in high school.
We worked off Samuel French playbooks until we knew it by heart. I, in my grey suit, struck a lot of fake matches, pretend-smoked a lot of unlit cigarettes and stubbed them out over and over again in frustration.
2 Chairs – 1 arm chair, 1 straight-back chair
1 Ashtray – Free standing, office-type, with handle
1 Pack cigarettes, opened
1 Cigarette lighter
1 handkerchief with stigmata effect
1 Psychiatrist suit
1 Mother Superior outfit
1 Postulate outfit
The nun, Agnes, is just twenty, seemingly ignorant of the most basic facts of sex and fertility, a girl who talks to angels. The third character, the Mother Superior, acts as Agnes’s guardian and advocate. Young Agnes is the pivot point between these two grown women, one who wants to believe in the actuality of religious myth and immaculate conception, and the other who seeks explanation and reason, even if it means believing in a more deeply violent world than one might want.
The playwright drops trace evidence for both perspectives into the plot. There are two accounts in which Agnes’s palms bloom with spontaneous stigmata re-enacted in scene. Dr. Livingstone refuses to believe in the possibility of immaculate conception. Through questioning and fact-checking, Dr. Livingstone proves that a priest was inside the all-female building the night in which conception most likely occurred. She proves the possibility of rape.
In her opening monologue, Dr. Livingstone alludes to her spiritual skepticism but also claims an affinity for alternative endings. She wants the world to be safe, to be loving, to be benign. She wants to believe, that with enough hope, something firm might transform. The play raises so many questions. When is believing dangerous because it blocks one from seeing the factual truth? When does one’s demand for certainty block out other possibilities? We come to learn that Dr. Livingstone has her own personal bias against the church; her sister died in a convent due to an untreated case of appendicitis. One can only imagine the fury ignited within this science-minded child upon learning that her sister was prayed over rather than taken to hospital, an act, in her understanding, of utter negligence. And how does Agnes, who claims to be able to hear angels, know her unspoken sister’s name?
I memorized this entire play at the age of sixteen. For six nights, I played Dr. Martha Livingstone onstage. The Mother Superior and I, locked in a battle of wills, our arguments slung at each other across the small stage, as we paced like lions in a face-off, the stubborn insistence of the Mother Superior to treat Agnes more like a saint than a human, and the Psychiatrist demanding that the world be seen as functional and predictable, without exception.
We got a write-up in the paper with a grainy photograph. The photographer for the newspaper snapped the shot mid-gesture, while my mouth was open and my hand out, directed in exasperation toward Agnes, huddled in the background beneath her wimple, her mouth in a howl.
That thing about alternate endings. When I read her opening monologue twenty-something years later it gave me chills up my arms. This, I thought, was a primary influence in my life. And I never knew it before. This struggle between certainty and questioning, between belief and trust, between the spiritual and the structural, has long held me captive, ambivalent and asking. I was sixteen when I played this role over and over. I still remember most of the play. And yet, I had completely forgotten its influence.
By the end of the play, Agnes, through hypnosis, exposes the fact that she knowingly killed the baby in order to give it back to God. She reveals that a singing angel visited her for six nights and, on the seventh, lay on top of her. Dr. Livingstone suspects she was raped. Agnes is sent to an institution where she loses vitality and soon dies. Dr. Livingstone cannot make sense of it all. At the end of her closing monologue she exclaims, “What kind of God can permit such a wonder one as her to come trampling through this well-ordered existence?! I want a reason! I want to believe that she was …blessed. And I do miss her. And I hope that she has left something, some little part of herself with me. That would be miracle enough. (silence) Wouldn’t it?”
If Agnes of God were a metaphorical quadratura, the Mother Superior would find faith in the spacious likeness of the painted-on sky, while the Psychiatrist would be set to prove it a commonplace interior, climbing up the scaffolding to knock on the painted ceiling and shoot everyone a pointed look. But, in private, she might lay on the floor and look up at the faux-sky and let herself dream. Agnes, though, most often locked in a state of reverie, listening to angelic voices, has tuned in to something beyond the interior: the real sky far beyond the painted-on one.
As rationalists, we are so rapt to explain mystical experiences or else dismiss or minimize them. The very definition of the mystical, its primary significance, is that it cannot be explained. And yet we want to name it, to apply a sturdy dose of reason, to know how and why it came to us. But explaining it away rubs off the magic. It pulls it into a realm of assessment and logic. And that is not the realm it comes from or belongs to.
Spiritual belief is a kind of quadratura. The ceiling of the mind shifts from reality’s ordinary display into the painted subconscious and the etheric unseen. If I believe in a godliness above, my quadratura reflects it: the roof blasted out, ringed with cherubs, the sky all blue, a haven. If I choose to believe that a ceiling is a ceiling no matter how it’s decorated, then nothing will conjure in me the sensation of wide fresh air in an interior space. Can I have both? The dome of my mind as my canvas, to paint, and repaint how I choose, as often as I choose—and the knowledge that it’s all really just décor, an illusion, art?
Do you know what it was for me, that night on the mountaintop after the sweatlodge? It was a feeling that any and all quadratura had blasted away, that the space we share is endless. I was an atom in the mix, just one atom, and my individual contributions and necessities and requirements and responsibilities—none of it mattered, and not in a ho-hum kind of way, but in a great swirling togetherness kind of way. And the people who practiced this custom knew it, that it could feel this way to be human. In that moment in the sweatlodge, I felt that everything was just as it was meant to be. I let myself sink into my skin because I couldn’t feel it for once. Everything was the same kind of blissful darkness, and there were no lines defining anything. Beneath the veneer of what we’re used to seeing, I caught a glimpse of the weave that makes it all go, and it was as if I was being assured that just by being in this world, I was safe, and that everything was really, truly okay.
That’s the feeling I’ve been searching for ever since.
And I’m calling on my imagination to find it.
I want to be taken by the feeling of losing my edges in the space between what’s real and unreal and undefined.
To be enlivened with imagery and this inexplicable sensation, to be out of my mind and body like I was that night.
I’ve been seeking that sensation ever since that night, trying to replicate it through various means, trying to figure out the recipe, to recreate it, to set everything in place to allow for its mystical arrival.
There is an image from a Faith Ringgold quilt I think of often. A flying child figure in perambulation between the rooftops and the sky, who, from that vantage, sees herself also on the flattop of her apartment building, because she is in both places at once. Not dissociation, but rather, discovery, an expanded dynamic perspective. Looking up. And looking down. Flying. And grounded. Dreaming. Free.
It isn’t a given stepping into a spiritual place or visiting a culture. It isn’t hard-earned by rigorous daily practice, at least not for me it isn’t. It isn’t even the fleeting sensation of being connected by the sound of chanting, or granted expansion by the sky—none of that causes me to feel it so bone-hollow-deep that my mind is reverberating: I am home, I am home, I am home. It’s something inexplicable. Maybe it’s what Agnes felt. Maybe this is the thing, wound up in yearning, that prompted artists to paint a ceiling into a sky. At the crux of awakening and soaring—there is this unspooling. I did it unknowingly. Coming undone. And what was revealed somehow was the body I’ve lived in all along. These hands, this heart, these eyes, this sensibility, this fingerprint we each have. I came into it. To my skin, and my imagination living large within it. My body unhindered and stirred. I landed here, in my own body, and took it as my home.
Liz Asch is a writer, artist, and acupuncturist, who also works at the crux of the body and the imagination as a wellness and creativity consultant. Some of her publications are under the name Liz Fischer Greenhill, variations on that name, and other pseudonyms. Liz holds a degree in English from Vassar College, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Eastern Oregon University, and a Masters in Chinese Medicine. Her writing has been published in The Rumpus, The Manifest Station, Atticus Review, MUTHA Magazine, Nailed Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Collagist, Oregon East, The Dream Closet, and the poetry anthology Step Lightly, among others.