From The Fire
Why would you go to an art museum?
Because you’re beau monde, sophisticated by cultural appetites – a refined intellectual with an index finger lacing moustache-like over the top of your lip; the rest of your hand cradling your lower jaw. You evaluate the elegance and cabalistic niceties, which pleasure only the nimblest of minds. You’re a connoisseur of Art Deco. A friend to antiformalist. A fancier of Cubism, though you’d never admit such an indulgence – a sort of voyeurism too closely akin to dilettantism. You’re erudite and polished; an epicurean of mise en abyme, a subject to bring up off-handedly in any meaningful conversation.
Or, you just happened by the art museum and figured you don’t have much else to do.
When Angela and I came in the door, we surprised the employee behind the counter. We paid our entrance fee, and Angela asked, “Can he take pictures?”
“Sure,” she said. I pulled my camera bag off my shoulder and started to pick my first lens. “Oh,” she said. “Most people just use their cell phones.” Then she thought about it a while as if finally deciding a camera is a camera and a picture is a picture. “Well,” she said, “You’re not going to sell your pictures, are you?”
“No,” I said. “I’ll probably just put them on social media.”
She brushed through stacks of paper and said, “Surely we have a photography policy.” But finding none, she said, “Well, I guess that solves that.” I attached my 40mm macro lens and slung my bag over my shoulder. “Oh, well, let’s leave your bag here,” she said with the rising tone. “Some of the stuff we have is very fragile.” I happily gave her my bag and she said, “Earl,” – I think she said his name was Earl – “will accompany you.”
Angela had started towards the From the Fire exhibit – “celebrating the 55th anniversary of the studio glass movement,” the brochure said – when her last words sunk in on us. “Earl will accompany you.” Earl was joining us because I had a camera. “If it’s a problem,” Angela started to say.
“Oh no. No, no. Not at all. Earl enjoys walking with people through the exhibit. But he’s kinda strict,” she said.
“Geez,” I said to Angela once we were out of earshot. “I’m not gonna break anything.”
Angela shushed me. “Let’s just go in before you get us kicked out.” She paused for a moment. “You are always getting us in trouble.”
“I am not,” I said. “How am I getting us in trouble all the time?” Angela just gave me a look. It is really the look that defines our marriage – the look that tells me she is just kidding. Or maybe it is the look that says, “Not now.” The look shifts meanings so quickly, it means nearly everything; it also means that after years of marriage, I have no idea what my wife is thinking.
Earl silently showed up behind us, hands clasped together. Long wrinkles ran down his face, hair pulled straight back with old-man-hair gel. He wore a uniform museum coat, which I imagined had been hung up neatly on the same coatrack for the last twenty years. A hearing aid protruded from his ear that sort of made him look like he was Secret Service. Angela gave me the look again – which I’m pretty sure meant, see what you’ve done now. Deciding to ignore Angela and Earl, I started taking pictures.
The sun, they say, is 4.5 billion years old – little collections of hydrogen and pockets of helium shuffling together, accreting a larger and larger ball of gas until the pressure squished one hydrogen atom into another, and then another. Then, SSSSHBLAMM. 4.5 billion years from now, it will puff outward – growing from the mediocre star it is into a bloated, red, dying star. Then it will, in another billion years, become a white dwarf – a speck of glowing cinders no bigger than the Earth. The sun will cool. It will cool and cool and cool for more than a quadrillion years, slowly radiating away the last bit of heat into the edge of space until time comes to an end and eternity begins. Then the white dwarf will be a black dwarf, a piece of glass, of sorts, a crystalline shard as cool as the ambient temperature of empty space. And it will stay that way until the speed of the expanding universe increases to such a velocity that electrons and neutrons are ripped apart from their atoms. And then, after eternity ends, maybe then, our sun will exist only as something that was.
With this kind of longevity, it is hard to think of the sun as fragile. Collapsing slowly back into the very heat filled pressures that push it outward: this delicate balance between gravity and pressure assuaging the star from blowing apart. And who can say how hot it is? Who can say how massive it is? How can we understand this thin balance that will keep the sun in some form of existence until existence ends? It impossibly exists to our minds as symbol or metaphor even though we see it every day. And even if we could understand the balance, it would be a meaningless number, rounded and curved symbols representing something so far beyond comprehension and experience that abstraction would escort the imagination to an exit door.
The sun is a glass orb creating its own kiln, stockpiling heat, warping and twisting the shapes and formations of artistry, just as the glassworks I photographed were made from a substance I cannot grasp. Maybe they too started out as little piles gathered here and there, brought together in little glass pouches, and burned hotter and hotter until they slide into the mind of an artist, a category of what could be, what will be – a perfection derived from an untenable genesis.
Then, one day the glass will be dropped. Or maybe the glass will be shelved away as something forgotten and unappreciated. Or maybe, like the hydrogen and helium atoms of our sun, the glass will simply be recycled, melted down, used again for some other purpose, recreated until all that is left is a timeless vacuum of what was.
We are stardust, they say. An explosion billions of years ago created the oxygen we breathe, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood. And it seems only natural to wonder what will become of these tiniest parts of me. Looking at the glass artistry from this sort of universal perspective, without knowing it, took me away from the very beauty before me.
The worry about the past and the anxiety about the future pulled me away from the fire creating me. I get so easily lost in abstraction. But it is the glass garment, maybe it is a baptismal garment, that arrested my attention. It drew me back to now. And I remembered that metaphor and abstraction, symbols and ideas are meaningless unless they can also be understood as gift and revelation. “White robes were given to you as a sign,” Saint Ambrose teaches his neophyte, fourth century Christians in Milan. The incomprehensible balance: transcendent and incarnational is always a sort of now. A constant never-ending now.
Earl followed Angela and me around the entire exhibit. Others came through the exhibit too, but Earl seemed content to stay with us. (The others didn’t have cameras.) Angela succeeded on her first attempt to quash the embarrassment of Earl escorting us through the exhibit by chatting him up. He’s been working at the museum for more than a decade – fifteen years I think he said. Angela learned he was 91 years old. He started talking about his favorite pieces of art and why. His reasons weren’t sophisticated. He liked the colors and shapes and called each work pretty, or “very pretty.” He pulled out his cell phone and shined a light through the glass and said, “Watch how it sparkles and creates shadows on the walls.”
Then he giggled.