Thursday, January 7, 2010


Towards the end of 2003, I started a Favorites List. 2003 was a good year to do this for a number of reasons: the end of a failed and traumatic marriage, a diagnosis of Lupus, a dear friend's suicide. It was an opportunity to kneel before some imaginary altar and give thanks. It also seemed an appropriate time to take stock of things, and not in a mental grocery list sort of way, but in a way that served as an emotional palimpsest for passages in my life that may well deserve another layer of text applied so that I might see things as they really are. Kind of like altarpieces and the painted ceilings of churches. With each Mass, feast day, and Compline, frescoes and triptychs were subject to alterations that the artists didn't intend.Assume that they remained in situ for long enough, and they were eventually blanketed in soot from candles and incense, adding a veil of sfumato where once gleamed gold gilt, aquamarine, carmine red - this is the stuff of time and truth.

When an artist intentionally employs the use of sfumato (from the verb sfumare - to evaporate like smoke), the truth is revealed by the delicate play of light and shadows (with shadows really setting the tone).
Leonardo, as much a scientist as he was an artist and inventor, delighted in the poetic possibilities of sfumato. As beholders of his work, we sometimes shudder at the Mona Lisa, because the truth plainly holds that we will not know for whom she wears that secretive smile - only that it appears from the shadows, and that it could disappear just as quickly. Smoke is fugitive, and this makes it as enigmatic as both happiness and sadness.

So my favorites list commenced, in part because I didn't want to overlook the little things. And also due to the fact that my hitherto charmed life had quite alarmingly filled with smoke, and I emerged from this experience sputtering and sort of sepia-toned. My first entry was "arrowheads," perhaps because I fondly recall finding arrowheads with my father in our newly-tilled field as a child. It seemed as good a place to begin as any other in the first page of favorites, which included, in no particular order:

-Jeff Buckley's rendition of "Hallelujah"
-Paul Celan
-touching bushes when I walk by them (?!)
-running stadiums
-seltzer water
-Montagne Bleu tea with honey and soymilk in my teacup from college
-when the photocopier doesn't have a line
-Gorecki's Symphony No. 3
-the Renaissance
-the South of France
-Thelonius Monk
-the Knicks, especially Derek Harper and Allan Houston
-finding money in my pockets
-cleome flowers
-Nina Simone
-Raphael's paintings of the Madonna
-vanilla soymilk
-piave cheese
-four leaf clovers
-the color green
-Peter's fish stew
-bulletin boards
-cooking with Heather
-the smell of lilacs on the corner of University and 39th
-eating with my hands
-Jorge Amado
-laughing with Gaby
-weeping cherry trees
-hope. hope. hope.

Almost seven years later, and my list of favorites is over twenty pages long. Am I that indiscriminate that so many things can be labeled as "favorites", or "the things I love most"? And why, now, do I still feel compelled to almost obsessively commit to paper the things, people, moments, and memories that I cherish? What makes me happier: the many things I've included in my list, or the now religious practice of recording them?

It is wholly relieving to have a fair bit of distance from that period in my life, when my heart and body dangled together on tenterhooks. Sometimes it feels as though I couldn't possibly have been that fresh-faced neophyte who gaped like a bass fish at my own misfortune. Sometimes (and still on occasion) I linger in my own sfumato, unsure of how to embrace the hope. hope. hope. that in my mind is as beautiful as a Botticelli, without surrendering to the fear that defines my edges.

At the end of the day, surely at the end of our lives, perhaps it is the possibility - indeed, the certainty - that smoke appears and evaporates in a measured hush, that urges some piece of me to be aware of my world to the extent that I transcribe its fugitive pleasures reverently, privately, painstakingly. That this can happen in moments of clarity and in moments of confusion is part and parcel of what makes us present, regardless of whether the present comprises peace or turmoil. We are always still painting, wiping away, and allowing dust and candle smoke to settle in the place of something else.

This, actually, is one of my favorite things.

More recent entries in my Favorites List include:
-the time I saw that graffiti heart in Austria with Alex
-my tempurpedic mattress
-when Moxa and Mia play together
-watching Daisy play basketball
-when my student Maggie put her squash bag in the trash can
-coconut water
-Trader Joe's lavender drier bags
-the scent of boiling vanilla, oranges, and cinnamon
-a good fireplace
-birds-eye view maps
-my ukulele

Sometimes favorites are left unfinished, apparently. Leonardo understood this better than most:

1 comment:

  1. To see through the smoke, and focus on the positive, is healing.

    To appreciate all of our little blessings, is wise.

    When I think of my favorite things, your laughter is right at the top of my list.