Last weekend, Dave and I went to Houston for his High School Reunion and I wasn’t into it. I was irritable. I had a really hard time shifting gears from “get things done at home” to “relax have fun somewhere else.” Instead of finding it nice to be away from all the tasks at home, they were nagging at me from afar. Out at the bar on Friday night I was a bit of a wall fly – Not very engaged, not very talkative. I doubt I impressed Dave’s classmates.
On Saturday morning, we were awakened by the sound of jackhammers and the scraping of huge metal plates. The roadcrew right outside my mother-in-law’s house got started at 7:00am. Sleeping in wasn’t an option which didn’t help with my irritability. By 10:00am were at the Menil Museum. It’s a lovely art museum, it’s free and it’s several miles from the construction noise. Turns out, the Menil is closed till 11:00 and I had to pee so we walked to the Rothko chapel.
I have been coming to this chapel for 10 years or so and I’ve always enjoyed it…. mostly as spectator. I walk around, look at the huge black paintings on the wall, think about the artist, this final project and his suicide. He didn’t live to see the chapel completed. This time, Dave and I had the place to ourselves. After a few minutes and a stroll around the space, I sat on the cushion right in the center of the quiet space, a bold move for someone like me who practices in private, in the dark of the morning. I was under the skylight, bathed in diffused light and surrounded by the huge black paintings. For the first time, I wasn’t a spectator, I was there to participate. I did some breathing and then some listening and instead of hearing how irritated I was, or jackhammers, or all that narrative about Mark Rothko and Dominique Menil and modern art, I just heard the color black. For a long time.
When I closed my practice and stood up, several other people were there, quietly seated on cushions and on benches. They were participating, too. I took my shoes and walked out, a different version of myself. I didn’t have any traces of all that annoyance from earlier and I wasn’t in any hurry. As we were leaving I picked up a book, The Rothko Chapel, Writings on Art and the Threshhold of the Divine by Dominique de Menil, and opened to this, her words from the dedication of the chapel in 1971:
I am supposed to talk about the paintings by Mark Rothko, but I don’t think I can explain them. I don’t think that what I say or anyone says is the last word. I think the paintings themselves will tell us what to think of them – if we give the a chance. They will educate us to judge them. Every work of art establishes its own base for criticism. Every work of art creates the climate in which it can be understood.
Mark Rothko was very eloquent on the subject. He said,
A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent.
This attitude of receptivity, indispensible in art is also the attitude necessary for ecumenism – TO LISTEN.
The experience of coming in annoyed, doing some practice and leaving a different person impresses me. Yoga isn’t fancy. A simple practice provides really effective ways to change gears and shift my perspective. I feel better, more connected, less agitated, when I practice. I had that and the gift of these words by Mrs. Menil. It served as a reminder to listen and to be a sensitive observer. I love this idea that every work of art creates the climate in which it can be understood. What if we approached everyone, everything with this attitude? These forty-five minutes of sitting, breathing, practicing and reading were such a gift. And on day two of the reunion, I had a blast.