I have spent years reading many books about self awareness, personal and professional improvement, how to lead, how to manage and notes from experts etc.
You too? They have all been helpful in some way. Yet do you, at times, feel overwhelmed or burdened and have had enough of opinion, lessons and advice?
Sometimes the best advice I have received has been gentle, unsolicited and held within a story of another. It has not been a direct "do this". Instead it just dropped in and I spent time gathering my own thoughts relating back to the story. It does not have to be someone I know. Some of our great teachers have been fictional characters - Atticus Finch, Jo March, Lady Chatterley, Woody, Buzz and Winnie the Pooh.
I began a bookclub in 2017 "Ladies who read to be inspired". (I will write more about the group another time as we learn more about each other.) In the first year we were still within a joint non-fiction desire. Once completed we decided to explore Australian novels in 2018.
Our first book of the year was the 2017 Stella Prize Winner, The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. Over the month from mid January to February we shared the book. Five of 8 readers shared the one copy, there was also a copy from our local library. Tidbits, frustrations and enjoyment were shared over WhatsApp. On the night we discussed the book sipping Dominique Portet Rosè. We discussed love on Valentine's Eve. Instead of a set of questions about the book we shared passages that resonated and we explored together.
The Stella Prize Judges report describes the book as ...
"The Museum of Modern Love is an exceptional novel that reimagines Marina Abramovic’s 2010 performance of ‘The Artist is Present’, in which she silently encountered individual members of a larger audience of viewers while seated in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The performance itself was an intensely compelling exhibition of the power of silence and vision, and Heather Rose develops a suite of intersecting characters, all visitors to the performance, all subject to their own daily routines, to the possibilities of conversation and restitution, to hope and bereavement, to a need for internal guidance and meaning.
The novel is grounded in the everyday lives of a rich and compelling cast of characters, but it also transmutes the intensity and significance of Abramovic’s work into the medium of literature, where people move, in their thoughts, conversations and memories, between everyday life and art, as the modest confrontation of the artist’s gaze in her performance stimulates each character’s individual confrontation with questions that lie at the heart of their own lives. This novel is an unusual and remarkable achievement, a meditation on the social, spiritual and artistic importance of seeing and being seen, and listening for voices from the present and past that may or may not be easy to hear.
It is rare to encounter a novel with such powerful characterisation, such a deep understanding of the consequences of personal and national history, such affection for a city and the people who are drawn to it, and such dazzling and subtle explorations of the importance of art in everyday life."
So, what resonated with us? To be honest many found it hard to get through the first 100 pages. Some put the book down. I loved this book. I did find it troubling to get through at first but once I did I was committed. Yet I took my time. It is not a book that incites you to rush but hold, sit, wonder, take notes and just mmmmmmm. I actually read a page out loud on Instagram! A fellow clubbers husband told me how he wept for Arkie. I highly recommend this to you.
Firstly, Heather the author describes normality so well ...
“the pavements convey people and dogs. The subway rumbles and the yellow cabs honk day and night. As in previous decades people are coming to terms with the folly of their investments, the ineptitude of the government, wages are low as are the waistbands of jeans, thin is fashionable but fat is normal, living is expensive and being ill is the most costly business of all. There is a feeling that the chaos of climate, currency, creed and cohabitation is looming in the world. On an individual basis most people still want to look good and smell nice, have friends, become rich, make money, feel love, enjoy sex and not die before their time.”
The writing makes New York, the characters and the art accessible. Many commented on not being 'into' performance art. I feel it is not important whether you know Marina Abramovic or not. We have all sat in a museum, art gallery or even on a platform at a train station and watched people go by, living their story.
I also loved the description of Jane’s husband Kurt when he is dying says ...
“what will you miss Jane… Tell me what you will miss.” In her thoughts she answers ‘your whistle when you come in the door ... your shirts on the clothesline. The evenings when we watch fireflies dance under the harvest spotlights. Your heart. The things only you and I remember about the children. The way your skin is always warm. Your coffee mug half empty on the Veranda railing at 7 AM. She could've gone on but he was tired, the real answer to his question was everything. What she didn't know, what she took for granted about living with Kurt and being a wife, was far larger than the things she could name.”
As a nurse who has often cared for and witnessed people dying the author is sensitive to individual feelings of grief, loss and attitude to being a caregiver, terminal illness and palliation.
“To become your father or your mother that is the eternal question ... the child ... that becomes the father ... can be a bit like her father or leaving or staying and being a fish like her mother”.
This was a difficult tangent but I liked it because I had been asked, recent to the time of reading, who am I most like in personality and temperament. I thought my mother till I watched my father. What about you? Were you or are you motivated to consider?
Another favourite was the description of Marina the artist, in the last third of the book, walking The Great Wall of China to reunite with her lover who she was going to break up with. Actually this would be one of my most favourite pieces of writing in the book. I do not have the quote of writing but questions arise about the demand we put upon our lovers. I ended the year of 2017 understanding 'Expectation is disappointment in training'. The passage that I love in 'The Museum of Modern Love' ends profoundly with "you cannot love someone for whom you want them to be".
The complexity of marriage and long term relationships is poignantly depicted. Can any person know another completely?
“Art did not stop, that's what Marina had said. Art did not get to 5 o'clock and say, "That’s it, the day is done, go think about TV making dinner." It wasn't like that. It was there all the time: when you were chopping vegetables, talking with a friend, reading a newspaper, listening to music ... it was always there offering suggestions, wanting you to go write, wanting you to imagine big things, to connect with an audience, to use energy, to find energy. It wasn't ready when you were, it didn't come when you wanted it or leave when you were done. It took its time. It was often late, or slow, or not what you had in mind.”
'The Museum of Modern Love' reminded me of my repeated realisation at the yoga ashram ... learning to stop all those thoughts I have while I am preparing our dinner or reading and taking notes. I need to be present and aware to cook dinner and just be within the moment of zucchini chopping, grating the cheese. When I do this I think of better ways to do the activity that make life easier for me ... use the grating blade on the processor for the cheese instead of using the hand grater. Your mind wanders to the people you are making dinner for and why you're standing here at the bench cooking dinner for those you love.
Seeking simplicity allows us both to remove those cluttered thoughts. I love that now my mind wanders to how I can create a purposeful business. Curate people’s homes, blog and present. What I can achieve is quite large now that I have the space in my home, thoughts and life to create rather than maintain stuff.
What can you create this year? It does not have to be art as an object, a project. Maybe a new way to put together your current wardrobe, new menus from your cookbooks, time to visit galleries, events you would not normally have gone to.
Arkie is moving into a new home. Jane is packing away her life as a married woman. Curating your space when you are in a moment of transition is the right time to act. To have only what you truly love ensures you have time to sit, to write, to cook, to dance, to attend and most importantly to be present. It allows you time to have one thought instead of multitasking. Being aware of what you can create gives room for you to remain connected to your intention. You know when to say no. The characters all said no; sometimes putting their own selves first regardless of the effect on another.
I do not think the main theme from the book is 'what is art?' The book is so much more. It does not align art only to the traditional artist but to individuals - what can you create? I think ‘what is art?’ is a tabloid review of the book.
Arkie is doing what he's been asked by his wife Lydia. Is Lydia mean keeping him away? Is it about self care? Why are people upset by Lydia refusing him or by Arkie following her request? Is it about their own guilt? Are Lydia’s instructions an act of love? Giving space to Arkie to continue his life without the burden of caring for her? Do you think he’s being selfish by his tacit agreement or being selfless by complying with her wishes? Is Arkie a good husband? Is she a thoughtful wife?
Mmmmm there were so many questions and not a lot of answers.
Usually stress is caused by events, situations, people you cannot control. Stress can be reduced if you have time to return home, to your space, to your thoughts and intention. You can practice removal of what makes you feel uncomfortable. Is that what Lydia did to Arkie? Removed the stress to allow him space to create? To be productive, not frustrated and annoyed, disabled. It was his choice to be distracted by Marina. Did it contribute to his intention of producing his greatest piece of work? Is it about his greatest piece or that he had a part in someone else’s great work? Does it have to be about us?
It is not always about solutions is it? Another question! Yet it provided a beautiful segue to return to the book and end the same as Jane realising ...
“it is all about connection. If we do it with the merest amount of intention and candour and fearlessness, this is the biggest love we can feel.”