Of Basilicas and Sandcastles

Sandstone blushed pink, washed gold drips spires like kids plodding sand clods, layer upon layer tapering into antique vases and Victorian crowns, cobweb queens crooning nocturnal arias of desert winds in desert pines, ghosts within Native American ghosts, burnt sage bushes carmelizing wellbeing and peace as they caress their canyons, their friends, leaving them be, pruning caves where they might dwell and carve and paint and eat, ghosts long silenced by Manifest Destiny blasting His metallic, electric, self-driving cries to Mars, for yes, the future is already here, just not evenly distributed, moguls gluttonously rich as our anorexic middle class, addicted to their heroine gaze in selfie sticks and Facebook Likes, vanishes from photos like Trotsky, a Mexican ice pick nailing his moustache to the cross, forsaken by his father as parched tears transubstantiate into blood droplets fixed in sacred time together with the ocean hoodoos, voodoo rocks moving, flowing, crooning their ocean hymns with the wind queens till ice cracks the foundations and the avalanche falls.

The precious colour schemes of Bryce Canyon, up close.

But, somehow, these same rosy blushes and gold lashes appear in Barcelona, on the recently restored façade of Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Familia.

I behold the Barcelonan stone blushed pink, washed gold and time somersaults in my lonely chest. Bryce Canyon and the Sagrada Familia stand, silent, 5,586 miles apart. They have co-existed for 136 years. Neither is complete; neither ever will be. The truth is that their pink gold stones likely aren’t very similar to the scientific eye. But to me they are. Similar enough to tear apart the fabric of time as a lover tears silk to expose milk skin, Harem beauty, breasts blanched only by moon rays. So similar that tears pierce their possibility. I don’t hold them back even if others are watching. The others are busy being with loved ones anyway. No one watches. No one except every sometimes the perfect meeting eye to eye, not the groping kind, the seeking kind, the kind astonished to have encountered a self, a soul, curious to see deep inside for an instant, to cradle the shock of what must be beauty, observant enough to recognize unique meeting unique before the footsteps go too far and a we vanishes, stillborn.

I stand alone in Barcelona, walking streets watching others walk streets with others. My very loneliness grants me passage back to the silent sandcastles of Bryce Canyon. Inside this crevice of similarity, I recognize two separate constructions that have come to be one through the patient ravishing of wear and time. In Barcelona, by the grime of the city, exhaust from bankers’ lungs twitching stock exchange profit, orange precipitating scallops doused in chorizo oil; in Bryce, by the violence of the desert, ice tearing limestone hymen with glacier patience, tourist footsteps gently tweezing out the old ocean soul in camera flashes and plastic baggies. The difference is that in Barcelona this pristine blush of pink and gold only juts out when juxtaposed to the tarnished, uncleaned façade, whereas in Bryce it cannot but swallow everyone in its magnificence. It’s likely I wouldn’t have perceived the shocking similarity had I visited Barcelona a few months later, presuming the restoration work will have advanced to no longer leave the striking difference between clean and dirty façades. And I wouldn’t have been primed to see the similarity had I not visited Bryce Canyon just a few weeks before. I, then,-and by I, I mean the set of experiences collected into this unifier we call memory and consciousness, where analogies forge similarity in blacksmith strokes—am the condition of the similarity. It took me moving between continents to notice this unique and beautiful elision. And, it’s likely that it took me being alone to feel it deeply enough to make it matter. Had I wandered the world with a companion, I probably would have noticed the similarities, but they probably wouldn’t have penetrated deeply into the place where the beauty breathes so pure it hurts. Hurts because it carries with it the basic fact of my existence, inviting me to have a seat. To feast upon my life.

It’s the pink and orange hues of the left façade that caught my eye.

Why yes, the hues of pink and gold in the muted limestone of Bryce Canyon and Barcelona are so beautiful because the perception of their similarity is the trace of my existence. The heightening of what is to what is meaningful. It’s a nostalgic and slightly mourning meaning, as walking the streets of Barcelona I think about García Llorca’s Yerma*, a play about a woman who never bears a child. I often face moments of sadness at not being married, not having children, not being cushioned by normativity’s blessings. But my jealousy and covetousness for others’ lives have eased over time. This is evident in how my relationship with my mother has changed. I’ve done the emotional prep work of still being without child at 40 or 45, empathizing with a future self in a future state and thereby also growing more compassionate to others, today. I’ve experienced many places and opened my heart to many people. It’s an existence worth a second act.

This took place yesterday morning. Saturday. Friday afternoon I recovered a different past. It’s likely Friday’s experience primed my mind and my emotions to notice Saturday’s sandstone similarities.

For Friday I walked into the Picasso museum in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter. The air was damp but the rain held off, at least then (later on I waited out the raindrops with strangers under a group of trees near the waterfront, watching a mother spoon yogurt to some little mouth covered by stroller canvas; the little one seemed to eat well, the yogurt went fast). I’d wandered to the Cathedral, saw the foreboding chiaro-oscuro of the heraldic escutcheons, black and shadowed and tall into cracked gothic arches. I wandered through narrow streets weaved with balconies, some square, others round like Gaudí hobbit holes.

The Picasso museum is housed in a medieval cloister. The entrance is asymmetric, with matte greens and greys and a staircase up the right-hand side. Standing in line for tickets, I encountered my sixteen-year-old self. She was waiting for me; she had never left; she lived in the matte green of the entrance hall. I relived the mild disgust noticing our Spanish teacher’s fanny pack hang like a limp holster under the taught piqué cotton of his mint green polo shirt, I saw the moles on his hairy legs and the forced kindness in his smile. He stood there waiting for all 17 or 18 or 20 of us to gather in the museum. Watching him, sixteen, I relived my projection of myself in the eyes of the boys on the trip, they were juniors, I was a sophomore, I had a crush on Lyle, my experience of Gaudí’s balconies and Picasso’s cubism and Velázquez’s portraits and Franco’s phallic monument and the Roman aqueducts in Segovia were filtered through this prism of insecurity and adolescent desire, my personality still so much in flux, my introversion still so marked. I brought my violin to Spain and played every day. I brought a suitcase that was much too large, as I had yet to pride myself on my practicality, how easily I could move about the world. At the time, I was absorbed by the pulse of my feelings, by the inklings of the self I wanted to project. I was so governed by how I thought others perceived me; still am, but more so then. Painfully so then, my superego cruel and chastising. I jumped forward a few years, into my mid twenties, where I regretted my stupid crushes and insecurity and self-absorption, as I didn’t have strong memories of the objects and monuments and art I was supposed to have learned about. I was so focused on Lyle, so focused on how I projected Lyle saw me, that I missed out on Gaudí, Barcelona, Spain.

picasso museum
The entrance to the Picasso museum, where I remembered things past.

But now, years later, I love the distortions. I love how walking into the Picasso museum on a damp Friday afternoon, I recover not just the memory of the place, but the feelings and vulnerability and sensations of the past observer. I love how I’m still there in my sensitivity, still there shaping observations based on who I am and what I’ve lived and where I project I might find future happiness. And that that snapshot of a self in development is still available to inhabit, to re-inhabit once more. That we can become again. That just as the pink and gold hues collapse space into the pulse of a single mind, so too do the matte greens collapse time, the identity of place revealing a self growing in time. Eighteen years of experience elapsed under a staircase.

I walked upstairs and, migrating at my own pace from room to room, understood how, like David Bowie, Picasso didn’t have one style, but iterated upon a given style in a given creative period until it was exhausted, then moved on. Impressionism cedes to the blue period cedes to the Russian ballets cedes to cubism cedes to the bombastic primitivism cedes to recreating las Meninas cedes to ad infinitum adoration of his wife cedes to the black and white still lives of old age. It was his recreating Las Meninas that caught my attention. Picasso takes this work, this exemplar of Spanish Golden Age style, where Velázquez enacts the Christ-like elision of creator and spectator, the Baroque practice of inverting the artwork—as representation of reality—to fuse the moment of creation with the moment of observation, perfected through the gaze of the painter himself as of the man escaping from the back lit door, well, Picasso takes this work and exploits the conceit of the artist and, with algorithmic insistence, repaints and repaints and recreates, distilling the essence of the form in the variations of style and look and feel. And the variations themselves eclipse his own journey as a painter, never tied to one style, always free to pivot and redefine himself anew. Picasso’s Meninas telescoping my own experience recovering my younger self, the privilege of my loneliness opening me raw and whole to meet him there, to imagine I might be with him and the pigeons while he painted. Another meeting eye to eye, the seeking kind, inside the artist, back to Velázquez. Complete in a way that can only be described as human.

Imagen 021
My favourite rendition of Picasso’s Las Meninas, a series from 1957.

*I picked up a book in the airport in Barcelona, nearly finished with Galloway’s diatribe against the Four. Niebla en Tánger, by Cristina López Barrio. Funny I’d just mentioned Yerma as I wrote this post on the plane, for I came across this sentence from a similarly childless protagonist: “Está vacío, como el de Yerma, piensa, hueco por esperar vida del hombre equivocado.”

The featured image dates from my recent trip to Bryce Canyon. It’s like a big field of deep dream art, dripping in its delicate phantasy. It was my favourite of the Utah canyons. 


4 thoughts on “Of Basilicas and Sandcastles

  1. Wow. Beautiful. Ill have to look up the Trotsky bit but just to listen to “burnt sage bushes carmelizing wellbeing and peace as they caress their canyons” transports me to the Southwest, even though I’ve never been!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Guess utah is not the sw. The first part of your essay definitely reads like a poem. And your remembrance of your 16 year old self sure rings a bell. Love the Picasso!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s