Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Road Trip to St.John of the Cross

To the left is an installation by Bill Viola, called Room for St. John of the Cross. This picture doesn't tell you much, but more about that later. Before I saw this installation, I had only vaguely heard of St. John of the Cross, and I had never experienced this sort of art.

In the winter of 1987, I decided to travel cross-country with a college friend. She was one of several exchange students from Scotland, and as part of the program, they were given a van for transport. For whatever reason, we lucked into having the van ourselves. Denise and I weren't close friends; we just hung out with the same people, so I don't know why she asked me or why I decided to go. Perhaps I just didn't want to be home for the holidays. It was dull and my parents found and I felt squelched and defensive. Maybe it seemed like an adventure.

The trip began auspiciously with me throwing up. I had gone out with a high school friend the night before and drunk too much of something very strong. Usually I avoided hangovers by drinking a lot of water before passing out and not eating the next day. But that morning, since I was going on a journey and didn't want to get a cold, I took my vitamin C. Never take vitamin C after drinking. Happily, throwing up seemed to make the world right again and I set forth light of heart and stomach.

This was a winter of storms and blizzards. We cautiously approached Tupelo in a deluge, listening to reports of flooding on the radio. We stood in the dark, soaking parking lot of the small house where Elvis was born. Denise was an Elvis fan, so this was a Special Moment for her. I was just wet. In Memphis it was freezing, and we ended up sleeping in the van in the parking lot of a 7-eleven. We could hear the Christmas Carols being piped through the streets of downtown. The next morning we stumbled into the Drake to watch the red carpet rolled out and the resident ducks make their way to the hotel fountain. It’s kind of amazing we were up that early. We went to Graceland, of course, and the Lorraine Hotel (surprisingly shabby and unassuming). Then we made our way along a route I don’t remember very well, except that at one point we were driving up a mountain in the dark with no guardrail and an ominously dark bunch of nothing past the drop-off, and one night we slept at a hotel for truckers—bungalows with space beside to park your 18 wheeler.

As we drove into Yorktown, a blizzard hit and it was like trying to drive in a blanket. Despite the blizzard, and because we were total idiots, we took the time to stop somewhere to buy cheap champagne, to keep us happy while we waited out the storm in a dingy hotel. The next day we visited Yorktown, where all the information was blatantly anti-British (as Denise pointed out repeatedly), and then Jamestown, by which time I was so cold I easily understood how an entire village could disappear. Denise knew someone who lived in Williamsburg who took us in a back way that avoided entry fees. The place was nearly empty, with a few workers dressed in period costumes and looking cranky about it. We took refuge in a hotel and drank hot buttered rum.

At some point we got ourselves up to New York state, where Denise had arranged for us to stay with one of her many contacts. She knew a lot of people because she was friendly and undiscriminating. This was often the cause of problems, or at least I saw them as problems. She seemed not to mind if we ended up in a pub with two drunken bikers after the buses stopped running or in a house full of rowdy and randy Scots on New Years Eve in Edinburgh. She was a friendly girl with a nice word for everyone. Which is how we came to be staying in Yonkers with a girl who had been over at St. Andrews for some study program. I disliked Yonkers Girl on sight. Then I met her friends.

OMG. We ended up in a bowling alley. A bowling alley. I was a bohemian kid with a pierced nose and a horror of suburbia, so spending time in a bowling alley was a soul shriveling experience. And here I was talking with an RN (an RN, I tell you) who was afraid of catching AIDS from a bowling ball. Anyway, boring suburban Yonkers girl took us into Manhattan and to MOMA. I have to think MOMA was my idea, as I don't think Yonkers girl had ever entered it before. And as fate would have it, we happened upon the last few days of an exhibit of Bill Viola's work. I'd never heard of him, but it was art, it was culture, it was a Manhattan art museum and not a bowling alley in Yonkers.

I walked into a dark room, with a small structure in the center, warmly lit from within. A video of snow covered mountains was projected on one wall of the outer room, the film jerky as if the cameraman had been running. There was a roaring sound like wind. As you moved closer to the structure, which represented the cell where the mystic had been imprisoned, you could hear a voice reciting poetry in Spanish. Inside the cell there was a desk with a pitcher and a video monitor showing the same mountains, only quiet and serene. The catalog explained who St. John of the Cross was and printed some of his poetry. Wow, I had never read anything like this. I had never heard anyone speak of God like this--it was erotic, sensual, surrendered, a love song. What, I wondered, would it be like to experience God that way?

I don't remember anything of the trip after that: what happened to Yonkers girl, how we got out of Manhattan, the trip back to Atlanta, if we ever met up with the other exchange students. The narrative unravels here.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,

it wounded my neck

with its gentle hand,

suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,

laying my face on my Beloved;

all things ceased; I went out from myself,

leaving my cares

forgotten among the lilies.

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