That’s what it’s all about

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Remember the Hokie-Pokie? For the uninitiated among you, it was a children’s song, popular in my milieu anyway (Northern California late sixties-early seventies childhood) that went like this: “You put your right foot in, you take your right foot out, you put your right foot in, and you shake it all about! You do the Hokie-Pokie, and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about!”

With each verse, you put in another body part, and you do as many verses as you want, attached to as many different body parts as you can think of, usually in the midst of uproarious laughter.

Often in my writing, I have trouble identifying a through-line, if you will. Things seem disjointed. How do you develop a unifying theme or narrative throughout the piece? Something satisfying that ties everything up in a big bow?

In other words, what’s it all about?

What is it all about? Not just the piece, of course, but life. That’s the thing. Great art imitates life or tries to reflect it. Great art is honest.

I took the kids and their father to the Matisse-Diebenkorn exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) yesterday. It was a revelation. It was exciting and moving to see how Diebenkorn’s love for and fascination with Matisse affected his work. How closely it aligned in places, yet as a completely different take or expression. How he chose almost the same color palette at times, but did something completely different with it. The styles and sensibilities were different, but connected, like an interplay, a conversation.

It was also exciting to see great art made from the simplest of things. Daily life. Diebenkorn liked to reflect real life, the objects and rituals of the quotidian. Enjoying the first sip of coffee. An ugly chair. A nondescript gas station seen through an open door.

I just googled “Diebenkorn and daily life,” and found a lovely blog post by one Robin Chandler. In it, she quotes Robert Henri’s words from The Art Spirit: “The sketch hunter moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook.”

Life as we find it. Recording it honestly, even the messy, embarrassing, inconvenient details. Especially those.

However, Chandler also says, “Painting is like life, it is all to easy too get lost in the details. Try to find what is important — your magnetic north — and hold your course.”

Detail is what we’re supposed to be focused on as writers, as painters. As artists. The trick is knowing which details to focus on, which to highlight. Because when we attempt to include them all, we end up with a hodge-podge assortment possessed of no through-line. No single theme or message or feeling or emotion or summation emerges. We want to choose the right details to give the sketch of our lives meaning and import, to make our lives comprehensible.

I’m reminded again of Diebenkorn’s works yesterday. In several of his paintings of women, I seemed to see and feel the woman exactly as she is. I saw her eyes, felt their nuanced expression. But, when I drew close, I saw that the “eyes” were just a few rough brushstrokes and in fact looked nothing like eyes up close. In fact, when I did this and then pulled away and looked at the painting from a distance of six or seven feet again, I couldn’t see the eyes anymore — just rough splotches of paint. It was like an optical illusion.

Maybe this is how life is too. It’s multi-faceted. It depends on what you choose to focus on. Which facet, which prism, which lens.

I want to write about my life, and if I’m to write honestly, that must include the ugly, the painful, the embarrassing, the shameful.

Yesterday at the museum, five of us were together, a family — broken, perfect, perfectly broken, but a family, replete with the love, pain, angst, hope, and joy that all families embody. What’s the point of hiding things? Diebenkorn painted an exceptionally ugly chair in the right foreground of one of his most famous pieces. Why? Because it was there. Because it was real. Because that’s what he saw.

Therefore, to be honest, to write about my life, I cannot sidestep what was actually there. To neglect to mention the important details of the day. What was really on our minds and in our hearts. What purpose would that serve?

If I were to leave out the painful, untidy parts, I’d be presenting a dishonest picture. Then, people who’s lives are undeniably messy and painful feel even more isolated. They’re perhaps led to believe other people’s lives are cleaner or happier. When that is not the case.

So, in writing about yesterday, in recording it for posterity, I must describe what was real. The father with the blackened eye, dealt by the mother’s alcoholic sister the night before, an attack that occurred while he was driving. The boisterous mania of the father that can be fun and energizing in small doses, exhausting and confusing in large ones.

Having to help everyone re-set their audio tours in the museum numerous times. Separating and converging at various points during the experience. Listening to complaints about the exhibit, claims that my daughter’s art is better than Matisse and Diebenkorn (trying not to laugh or show incredulity).

In yesterday’s photos, it’s all there: the father with an upside-down black crescent beneath his right eye. Father and daughter side-by-side in the sculpture patio. The photo taken of three of us by tourists, where we have our best faces on: carefully presenting our best selves. The other photos showing love, irritation, boredom, embarrassment.

Ordering fermented tea-eggs in Chinatown afterwards. Everyone surprised they liked them. Quieting the mania again. Begging for silence. Slurping noodles. Walking too fast. Trying to get everyone as excited as I was by the sights I encountered in Chinatown: the squatting old man shoveling rice into his mouth beneath a giant, conical Vietnamese “leaf hat.” The violin-playing barber in the alley. The lines of fluttering laundry drying in the sun from the windows of the apartment buildings. The old men playing Go in the park.

Forcing myself to back off and allow everyone to have their own experiences.

Our motley crew threading our way through it all. Our lives and histories are messy, as is life itself. But they’re ours. It’s our crew, our history, for better or for worse. It’s real. It’s honest. It’s our whole selves. And, as the last verse of the Hokie-Pokie song says,

You put your whole self in
You take your whole self out
You put your whole self in
And you shake it all about
You do the hokey pokey
And you turn yourself around
That’s what it’s all about

We put our whole selves in. Because that’s what it’s all about.



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