Friday, December 30, 2016
A whirl. A spinning, twirling, flitting whirl. That’s what my year has been.
Facebook reminded me this morning that one year ago I was on a train going to St. Petersburg, Russia. One would think by then it would seem common for me to travel alone in a foreign country. I should not feel a thrill of victory at my independence and ability at all. Yet, there I sat thanking God for making me somehow have the skills to manage it all.
The image of my face in the train window came to me again yesterday on my way to Chicago. I was meeting a friend to have breakfast and then head to the Art institute. I had been told the impressionist works there would make my mouth water.
The comparison to the year before was continually walking through my memory. I had gone to St. Petersburg, in part, to meet a friend. We would visit The Hermitage, filled with breathtaking works. I was reading Natasha’s Dance, a cultural history of Russia, at that time. Internalizing the history of Russia while walking among its remnants was especially poignant for me.
The conductor’s voice brought me back to present. I am still sometimes surprised to hear the English language in unfamiliar public places.
The train in America is not a common form of transportation and so it wasn’t very crowded. Mostly holiday travelers who, like me, didn’t want to drive to Chicago and pay exorbitant parking and tolls. I spent much of the trip listening to two women behind me talk loudly about personal business – theirs and other’s. A sharp contrast to the near silence and hushed movement of the Russian Rail.
Chicago’s Union Station rivals the greeting station in St. Petersburg. Its marble stairs dressed up for Christmas were festive and welcoming. The crowd was friendlier to a stranger, but that could be due to language and my own comfort level. Perhaps if I spoke Russian I would not have felt distanced from the crowd of St. Petersburg. Or perhaps it was the warm greeting of my friend waiting for me in the center of the grandeur of Union Station.
We walked briskly from the station catching up on each other’s lives. I always enjoy the company of my brilliant young friends. I am sure they make me smarter just by osmosis.
I was flooded with memories as we sat in the European café, Le Pain Quitodien, on Michigan Avenue. The chain was a favorite in Moscow. An easy meeting place. “how about Le Paine at Park Kultury?’ “We could meet at Le Pain at Red Square and walk from there.” “There’s a Le Pain near the Metro. Let’s stop there.” You could expect a good bowl of coffee, fresh bread and pastries and quick service. It was not fast food, but always fast and fresh.
Like any good franchise, it was much the same in Chicago as Moscow or St. Petersburg. The same coffee bowl, the same chocolate chip cookie stack at the pastry counter, the same salt and pepper shakers even. It was good, comfortable, like finding an old friend in an unexpected place.
The Art Institute felt somehow familiar, too. Similar to The Hermitage, I was greeted by a long queue waiting for tickets. However, the American version moved much more quickly, happily, loudly. Within five minutes we were at the doorway to the collections.
“Impressionists first?” My friend asked.
“Yes, of course.”
Monet, Degas, Renoir, Seurat beckoned us. Swirls of color, light, dancers, flowers, absolute spring time embraced us. I reveled in the joy of their brilliance. At times breathing deeply as if I could inhale a moment of their greatness.
Van Gogh looked slyly from the corner as if to question our questions of his use of colors and shapes. “You don’t like it? What? You think blue instead of yellow for her face? To me yellow was pretty, summery, light. You can see it in all of my favorite pieces. And why are you standing so long before the piles of grass? I made those as a study. Just a study! They don’t mean anything. Leave them behind. Go, now, get out!”
I was very surprised to find that I could recognize some of the artists simply by their works. When had this happened? This knowledge of art? Where had I acquired this kindred-ness to the masters? Was it at The Hermitage? Tretyakov Gallery? MMOMA? The Garage? The exposure to greatness had infiltrated and changed me.
Phrases from Natasha’s Dance came to me as I noted Russian artists spattered in the Institute’s collections. Especially true as I stood entranced before the Marc Chagall America Windows. The blues, the lights, the peace, the breadth, the depth of the entire work pulled me in. I was sorry he had lived through so much political unrest and discrimination. I was selfishly glad the broad living had expanded his talents so I might enjoy them.
A boy of about 10 sat on the bench before the windows similarly captured.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“Yes.” He answered seriously. He stood as though to leave and let me sit.
I continued. “What do you like about it?”
He sat again and turned his head to take it all in again. “The blue. I like the blue the most. And the small pictures.”
I nodded in complicity. “Yes, I do, too.”
“And the instruments. I like the instruments.”
“Ah. I see them, too.”
We continued comparing the big and small of the windows before us. I could sense something special about this child. An artist’s eye, a creative genius beginning. He looked deeper into the art than most boys of 10 would bother. He was patient to see the whole story.
A young girl came to sit beside him. At first I think she was checking the conversation, making sure I wasn’t bringing some kind of harm to him. Then, realizing I was tapping into the young artist’s creativity, she smiled and quietly listened. I wished later I had gotten his name. I think I will see it written on a canvas someday.
There were other such moments of awe as we flowed through the galleries. Cubism, minimalism, impressionism, realism and a host of other -isms swirled around us. My companion of the day is a brilliant musician who uses her talent as a teacher. Her insight of the intertwining of art and music was fascinating. We discussed the closeness of genres in Europe and America how music and art and literature reflect upon each other.
After my friend left to catch her train, I roamed around alone for a bit basking in the city lights. Much like I had done in St. Petersburg the year before, I sat at a Starbucks watching the locals. Rushing home from work. Stopping for a quick warm up. Chatting together before going to some other event.
Last year it was a mall Starbucks which became my writing spot. Amidst the glitz and glamor of holiday shoppers, I tucked into a booth while words fell from my hands. Immersed in strangeness, it was still comfortably familiar. I couldn’t understand their words, but their faces told the same story. Love of family. Joy of friendship. Excitement of travel. Weariness of work.
As I considered my visage in the window of the night train I was glad for all of the living, stretching, breathing, learning. I am thankful for a God who helps me to seize the day and allows me many opportunities. I hope I am living as someone worth His investment.
You may have seen a quick day trip to Chicago. Now you know what was felt through this writer’s eyes.
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Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year! Let's unwrap 2017 together!