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Messages from the Museums: Looking and Seeing, Listening and Hearing

Day One: The Metropolitan

Porphyry basin

Roman, imperial period, 2nd to 3rd century A.D. Stone basins served as tubs at the large imperial baths of Rome.


My feisty New York artist mother has often said, “The Metropolitan Museum is my best friend.” My mother can be vibrant, vociferous and proactive to the point of contention, but at a museum, she stops, looks and contemplates. For much of her adult life, she’s taken the short walk west from her apartment to the three-tiered steps of the Met. As an aficionado, she’s been privy to insider secrets—all the shortcuts from wing to wing and the location of little known elevators. Early in my childhood, she passed her love of the Met on to me. After school every day I would meet my mother there at the Egyptian tombs.

Beginning at the tombs, we’d walk around and take a good look. My favorite was a tiny chamber in the tombs with a mysterious slot high up through which we could barely make out a statue of the deceased. It felt like we were seeing into the mysterious world of death. As I reflect back, I notice a fundamental difference between looking and seeing. We could have looked in a casual mind-wandering kind of way. But to truly see doesn’t only involve the eyes. Seeing is getting at something deeper and more true. The kind of Buddhist meditation that I’ve studied is called vipassana which means seeing clearly. Vipassana is a practice of insight, of seeing what is happening as it happens. At the Metropolitan with my mother, I began to learn to stop, to look and sometimes to see.

Now my mother is 97. When my husband Patrick and I come from Berkeley to New York to visit, we push her in a wheelchair to visit local museums, beginning with the Metropolitan. Wheeling her through the many halls, we stop when my mother gives a nod and we look at art that draws her interest. In one gallery on a recent visit, we come upon a mammoth bathtub carved out of porphyry, a dark purple stone. As far back as I can remember, my mother has loved baths, as do I, and as does Patrick. In fact baths play such a resonant role in my family, that I am currently writing a memoir where the waters of the “bath”—from the amniotic fluids of birth or the earth’s primeval seas to the relaxing balm of an everyday soak—flow in some way through all of the chapters.

So we three bath devotees stop and contemplate that majestic tub. What is it that each of us sees? A place to rest the mind and relax into the body? A repository of dreams? A refuge offering uncharted peace? Or what?

I note in the explanatory card that this porphyry basin was first used in the imperial bathhouses of 2nd to 3rd century Rome as a bathtub, then reused in the Christian era as a sarcophagus. Whoa! An echo of my childhood meeting spot with my mom—the Egyptian tombs. What an apt image this Roman tub now evokes for me, suggesting the cycle of life, womb to tomb. Before unlocking the brakes on my mother’s wheelchair and pushing onward, I take a last look at the ancient basin. For a moment, I see clearly what I basically know but usually deny: we are all headed towards the sarcophagus.

Day 2: The Guggenheim

Listening, 1920, oil on cavass. Heinrich Campendonk, 1889-1957, German.

When the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, Campendonk was condemned with others as a degenerate artist and forbidden from exhibiting. In 1935 he moved from Berlin to Amsterdam.

On our second day of museum visits, Patrick and I are on our own while my mother rests at her apartment; I have more time to reflect. At the Guggenheim, I study a dark oil landscape of a shadowy figure, his ear tuned to spiky plants and horned beasts. I’m struck by the title of this dreamlike painting: Listening. Lately, I have been dwelling on the theme of listening. How does one truly listen to others? And at the same time listen to oneself— contact one’s own fundamental values, track one’s own reactions, hopes, fears, judgments? I’ve been practicing listening—in my conversations with family and friends, in talking with strangers in political work, in canvasing voters at a farmers market.

In Campendonk’s surreal landscape, how does the figure truly listen? Just as there’s a crucial difference between looking and seeing, it comes to me that there’s a distinction between listening and hearing. What qualities must this listener muster—resolve, courage, balance—to listen so that they can truly hear the voices of the scary garden?

As we spiral up through the ramp gallery of the Guggenheim, Patrick and I approach two men leaning close to each other in intimate conversation. One man studies a Picasso, then turns to his companion and speaks in his ear. The listener seems to ask a question; the man who was studying the painting looks at it once more, then turns back to his friend and starts talking again. It isn’t until I cross paths with these two that I notice the listener’s white red-tipped cane for the blind. I find myself unexpectedly moved.

The sighted friend is contemplating the art and describing, and the blind friend is listening. I don’t know whether the blind friend has ever had sight, whether he can see dimly even now. I don’t know why he would be so dedicated as to climb through the many levels of this gallery, stopping to experience each painting and sculpture —listening, imagining. I don’t know what the blind man sees. He must be seeing something very compelling with his inner eye.

Then it comes to me that the sighted friend can’t simply look; he too needs to truly see each painting, to see into his own responses, then to find words to evoke what he sees. He needs to continually listen to the blind man, and hear to assess what his friend is receiving. Just as the man who is looking is teaching his blind friend to see, the blind listener is teaching the looking friend to see and to hear.

What particularly interests me is the supple dynamic of exchange—of listening and hearing, of looking and seeing. The Dalai lama talks about the value of a “supple quality of mind.” Can I learn to be supple in my dynamic with Patrick, with myself, with strangers in the farmers’ market? It’s taking a long time to learn to look so I can see, to listen so I can hear, to engage with flexibility in exchange with the world—so dark sometimes, and spiky.

Day 3: The Asia Society

Male Figure

Angkor period (802-1431), late 12th to early 13th century, Cambodia, Sandstone (Bayon style).

On the last day of our visit, Patrick and I wheel my mother eleven blocks south from her apartment to an exhibit at the Asia Society, a small museum that features Asian art. This is the closest I’ve ever come to going with my mother to a temple. Like most of my New York family, my mother is fervently secular, suspicious of anything that smacks of religion; she has no interest in attending synagogue (even though she is Jewish by blood). Nor is she interested in going to a service at a church or at a Buddhist temple. But she has on several occasions surprised me by suggesting we visit the Asian Wing of the Metropolitan which she says is her favorite.

Earlier this morning, my mother started picking fights. She often stirs up drama, needling orthodox Jewish friends about Israeli militarism or embarrassing a proper “blue blood” neighbor, commenting on her neighbor’s granddaughter who lives with a lover out of wedlock. Today, my mother got a rise out of me when she taunted, “You’re the kind of person who pretends to be helpful, but is really doing something for yourself.”

Patrick and I are glad we’ve changed the scene and brought her out to a museum. It turns out that we are the sole visitors at a small exhibit. Only a museum guardian stands barely visible in the corner of the gallery. We wheel my mother into the silence.

I am stopped by a statue with a lovely visage, consummately serene. My mother nods, indicating we might settle here for a look. The face is simple with full lips in a contented smile, a high forehead and a glowing quality so equanimous and kind that my eyes fill with tears. My difficulties from the morning release and for a few moments I feel peaceful. This Cambodian sculpture of a female figure, I read in the card below, is from a temple believed to be dedicated to the Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara, a god of compassion.

Female Figure

Angkor period (802-1431), late 12th to early 13th century, Cambodia, Sandstone (Bayon style).

I look at my mother. Her face has turned gentle, with a rare softness and calm. Touched, I notice that her face mirrors the face of the figure she is looking at. I think about the fierce way my mother often meets the world, even this morning; she’s vivacious, forceful, but can be hard. She says of herself, “I’m tough; I’m a tough cookie.” It comes to me that it’s not just my mom who is sometimes hard or strident. I meet the world that way too. Yes, I can be commanding, a vivid presence in a room. But my way can also be grating. I must have needed that toughness over the years, as she has needed hers. But I’d like to respect it and loosen it too, let some of the toughness go. We’re all headed for the sarcophagus, maybe soon, I remind myself; there’s no time to lose.

Appreciating my mother’s response to a series of kind-faced statues I see how transformative such faces can be. A listening face can heal suffering. I’ve always loved Avolokitesvara, particularly the usually female version. In various Southeast Asian countries she’s called Kwan Yin or Guanyin meaning, “she who hears the cries of the world.” When I traveled with my family to Vietnam, I turned the trip into my secret Guanyin pilgrimage. Collecting small statues of this goddess, I revived myself in her cool sweetness wherever we went—from the caves of the Perfumed Pagoda to the root temple of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. A towering statue of Guanyin guards the sea beyond Danang Harbor. I imagined her, ears tuned, hearing the continued cries of suffering from the Vietnam War.

These museum messages, all three together—the grand bathtub at the Metropolitan, the two friends in conversation at the Guggenheim, the kind faces at the Asia Society—have changed me in some way. On returning to California, I find that the power of the kind listening faces stays with me. Can I learn a different brand of listening, strong—unshakably committed to finding what is true and just—and yet tender at the same time? Can I bring this listening to conflict with my sister, to a class where I tend to speak more loudly and more often than I would like, to passersby in the farmers’ market? When I meet others with opposing views, can I respond with my own Guanyin eyes and ears—seeing beyond closed demeanors, hearing beyond angry words, to what’s hurting inside?

My mother at her 97th birthday pre-celebration, a strong feisty presence.

Kneeling Woman

A small clay figure from a five-story pagoda, one of earliest and most important Buddhist temples in Japan. Believed to be constructed during the Nara period, in the late 7th or early 8th century.

My mother, at peace, mirroring the Kneeling Woman.

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