The Ugly Beauty


California… the song by Joni Mitchel, comes sadly into my head as it does every Christmas. My hometown. I pass the time instead thinking of the reasons I did love this city of Amsterdam…to walk everywhere…to a film, theater, an opera. Through this crooked city- not from corruption but literally because the buildings lean on each other like drunken sailors. 

Where I know I can walk from that sight, down tiny pathways, over bridges, next to the University, towards tables filled with used paperback novels. I search titles and authors I’d never studied but now I collect as an adult.  Especially the gay stories.

My eye catches the view from my window. Two men unloading from their white van. Delivery of two washing machines. And as I watch the men using the same tools of years, no centuries before, that of a handtruck- centuries ago called sacktruck- and their own bodies, I wonder, really, will robots ever take their jobs? Will a robot ever use the same mechanics to unload a van? Sliding the wash machine off the van’s bed, then grip it, so to help it off the van, undamaged, to the ground?

Now I glance at the window beside me, of the neighbor who lives there. I wonder why her Christmas lights are not turned on for the past two nights. Logic tells me she has gone for visits to family or friends. But as far as I’ve seen, she has none. And there are no visits now since the virus started and now is worse. I could count on her for sports I could view for free from her big screen TV, through her window to mine, all the way over here. But there are no sports now either. 

I worry she is not ok. But I am too polite to go check. And I think she would be offended to learn she is watched by me. 

The workers have disappeared. And I remember why I got out of bed so early to write. The post I had seen from a friend in Los Angeles yesterday, who wrote of a public performance of a ballet dancer inside a glass ball- the only way she can dance safely during a pandemic. 

I felt the writer’s sadness as she talked of the absence of ballet, theater, music performances. She said, “We will survive this.” 

And I think, ‘Yet how amazing it is- a dancer in a glass ball. What a great idea!’ One that would not have come if not being trapped inside, in lockdown. 

And I think, perhaps more people are now seeing art from inside, who would never be going into a museum or performance. Because they would be too busy working in an office or factory, or driving freeways in LA. Or perhaps had never seen or thought to go to an opera or ballet but now I hoped would, because of this introduction to it online. 

Is this what happens to prisoners? Trapped, locked inside, they are faced with only their own brain and heart, so replay all they’ve done to get in there? Or all they miss? Is this what I’m doing? 

Such an oppressive term: Lockdown. LA in lockdown. And as I read her words about missing art, in all its forms: image, dance, music and word, I know it is these last two she misses the most. 

And perhaps, when lockdown also kept her from walking the beaches, her longing was just as forlorn as the words of the surfer I’d read. He had written  to the Los Angeles times at the beginning of the pandemic, (and somehow was picked up my the AP, so I could read it in the NY Times, all the way over here) 

When the beaches had been closed, he’d written, “Why am I being denied what I love? That which keeps me sane not insane?” He then went on to describe the pulse and rhythm of the waves, I could feel the spray and the pace and I was again there. And how damn grateful I was for the words of passion he felt. Because, in place of he alone on the Pacific Ocean, or a photograph of himself on a wave, his words were describing to me the pain he felt in his missing that vast body of water, the pulse and temperature of her.

Perhaps this disease has come, for the sole purpose of making us see and feel that which we would lose- are in danger of losing: The sea, the streets, the art that humans make to show each other the beauty  we are blessed to be living in. And the danger of it’s loss.

Artists like Kathe Kollwitz, who in the years leading up to WW1,  drew pictures of her fellow humans, portrayed starvation in the bleak winter and emotions of grief and inner conflict. She captured for all humanity the realism of those times, depicting human suffering with brutal honesty. Or perhaps she drew them so as to somehow believe what she was seeing.

I think of those now in the front lines in hospitals. Who tell their stories of what they are seeing. Is it now only with film crews that we can believe these images they tell us of? Is there no other truth except image- and even then, one part of society disbelieves it?

Was it only lack of photographs that kept the horrors of the concentration camps from a disbelieving public? Or was it that other thing- that part of humanity that just cannot believe that one person or group can inflict such horrors on another?

Is it easier to disbelieve when there are no images to prove it? That’s why secrets are the stuff of blackmail. And one part of society causing the other to feel shame of love for another’s skin color or same sex- the shame that many use a bible or blog to inflict pain with. And yet, even with an image like Floyd, we see but cannot believe. Like what the image of the twin towers did to me- to many. Airlines smashing into towers, or before that, World War 2 airplanes flying over Pearl Harbor, bombs raining down upon paradise- all captured by photographs, black and white and a body count. 

What good does a body count do now? The bodies- other humans who we read about to see who they were and we feel sick or relief because they had not voted against ‘Us’, whoever ‘Us’ is. The ones who laugh at ‘Us’. 

I’ve re-read these pages and think again of my neighbor. In this city, back in 1940 people disappeared. Perhaps folks like me- too shy or lacking language skills or not aggressive enough- did not go check on their neighbors. So the secret parts -the ghettoes of the city, then the camps remained either unknown or disbelieved. Because who could believe such things were happening behind brick walls? What we were hearing.

I’ve seen the reenactments. Life size photographs of a woman throwing a child over a brick wall towards safety. I’ll never forget that image. And its here because someone had actually stood there and watched  it happen. 

Remember the scene in Gone with the Wind? When Scarlett went to search among the wounded? A never ending sea of screaming, writhing bodies. And even that scene, that image, was too clean. There would have been blood. Red rivers everywhere. And when seen from above, that gives the powerful scope of it all. Not that they were killed brother against brother: that human link that all humans can connect to, but the number of those killed. Can only be believed when seeing it in a wave of bodies, too far to see an end to.

This is what, if lain side by side, we would see from this pandemic. 

And each cadaver, just hours, no minutes before, a live breathing being, upon whom others were frantically trying their best, in absolute exhaustion and overwork and with out proper protection, to keep alive.

These are the images we are not yet shown. One day the photos will surface, taken from a phone, of bodies in hallways, nurses resting exhausted on gurneys or under tables. 

The faces of exhaustion will be shown one day, like the black and white photographs of those snapped during the depression. The Dust Bowl families with no hope, surrounded by hungry children. These images slice our heart, enrage us, have us reach towards each other in humanity not anger. 

I’m reminded that it was not the live images of 1960 riots that had me take up a brush to paint,  Those who ignore History . It was the Los Angeles riots of 1992, that raged near my neighborhood. That had me searching through books for photographs to round out the image I had in my head: I’d combined the civil rights march with the holocaust, and all the racist worms slid out from beneath their hiding places. 

Was I surprised they were there? Not really. West Hollywood had just swam out of the gutter of Reagan: the president who had not even looked at, much less acknowledged a whole generation lost to AIDS. Even for his actor buddies, and by then, it was way too late. 

He instead had sided with conservative racism under the cloak of, “Good for America.” 

I picture that cloak as the image in Picture of Dorian Grey– who’s corruption festered within. I wonder now, if the story, The Emperor’s New Clothes was about this. For only a child would have had the guts to say aloud what the public felt inside. Like the child Greta does now. 

I suppose corruption- when covered in jewels is a mystifying, mystified illusion of beauty. Too stunning to look away from. 

I’d been captured – for a minute- when viewing the crown jewels in London. I’d understood why they were sought to steal. Was it that they were held behind bars? So, like a thick walled safe, assumed to be of value? 

Yes, they were stunning in sight, but beautiful? Every beauty queen or starlet must eventually see the tattered veil of that role. 

But ironically, the audience never does. They judge, snipe and snark about HER- the fat, the age, the attitude of her, and yet we all bow to the queen of captivating beauty. 

Did I? Do I? Of course. Yet I balance my meal of sweets with solid, sometimes hard to swallow facts:

That humans can be, are, ugly. 

And the presidents are people, not kings. Hell, even kings are human. And no matter what they are cloaked in, disease festers with in them as well. When they are supported and allowed to run crazy, dictators are born.

I glance out of the window and see the Christmas lights of my neighbor are switched on. Will I ever go knock on her door or have a conversation? 

For being in lockdown, I have quite a view. The world walks beneath and far off. I could be a king in this ivory tower. But kings never did look out of their windows. Perhaps only, as Hitler had, to view the next territory he would take over and occupy. 

I’m turning towards a horror image I would rather not see. To an image of color and beauty. Perhaps my mother finally got her wish when she’d said to me in high school, “Can’t you paint pretty pictures?” Well, bless her, she could, out of necessity, but I can’t. Not really. Life is a mix. As a child I’d been inspired from Martin Luther King and the Kennedys. They were assassinated. 

I look out my window for escape. Water speckles my pane. The sky turns from pale grey toward dark. No color at all, but upon one neighbor’s balcony, a string of colored lights. And I wonder of my home town who gleefully strung Christmas lights but not gay rainbows, and turn toward my big screen neighbor. She must be sad there are not sports on- what she lived for. This countries’ soccer team battling a rival country. At least its on a green field not in the streets. 

She probably never thinks of what I write here. Yes, her grandparents or parents probably lived through the occupation, but that’s been forgotten in every day life. 

No one talks of such things anymore, except perhaps in the museums devoted to the memory of those lost during the holocaust.

Well, I’m glad for those museums.

Because even Mother Nature does not completely wipe all truth away. Try as she may for the bleak winter before the rebirth of spring, it is only humans who try not to see, who disbelieve, who have the luxury to turn away and hide. 

It is the animals, the homeless, the refugees, the ill and the children who truly see, 

that life is both beautiful and ugly, 

sometimes in the same moment. 

To see this painting on video…. or to purchase a museum quality print of the images above, Pacific Moon or Those who Ignore History.

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