Monday, April 19, 2010

Serendipity: Tea with Eva and running into an old friend who happens to be an Elephant


Serendipity: making fortunate discoveries by accident.


RULE TEN: "We're breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities." (John Cage)

Life's course unfolds. Watching from above one might see our fierce free will navigating through a series of circumstances beyond our control. Basking in this uncertainty can be viewed as a flailing about. OR If we are passionate about things...an opportunity for a series of unexpected/exciting inspirations. These seem to be handed to us from some place larger and wiser than what our current selves could have yet dreamed up. We are attached to the idea of being in control, which is ultimately impossible. Yet being full of intent does seem to matter. Often times connecting the dots and seeing the metaphors in retrospect helps frustrations melt away. Where you are now may not be what its actually about...but you had to be here in order to get THERE. By letting go, taking risk, and being open we can more rapidly grow into ourselves. Learning when to push and when to be pulled we slowly but surely stumble upon our destiny.

A few weeks ago I went to New York to interview my longtime hero, Eva Zeisel. I woke up that morning sick with a cold and a scratchy inaudible voice. I had prepared 103 complex questions for Eva in hopes of understanding every bit of her 103 years of life wisdom in the realm of ceramic industrial design. It was an unseasonably warm and sunny spring day. When I arrived Eva was sitting outside enjoying the sun. I handed her some calla lilies and I introduced myself (with my scratchy inaudible voice). She took my hand in hers and said "oh yes your hands are good, you are good." I was then informed by Eva's daughter that at 103 Eva is still completely sharp and aware but at this point has a very difficult time hearing. I was encouraged to go ahead and attempt to interview Eva even though I could hardly talk and she could hardly hear.
In all honesty once in Eva's presence all my heady interview questions seemed senseless. Within the proximity of Eva's well earned sense of enlightened self-containment, I felt like a yappy puppy chasing its own tail. Nonetheless I nervously yelled my questions into a microphone contraption while Eva patiently attempted to decipher what it was I so desperately wanted to know from her. This turned out to be seemingly frustrating for both of us and we eventually settled in to drinking tea (from some original Eva Zeisel design cups of course). We soaked up the sun, watched the birds and drank from her beautiful cups. After awhile Eva's daughter Jean gave me a tour of Eva's studio which was amazing and informative. When I returned to Eva she had a bad headache and so I was asked to read to her to help distract from the pain. After learning that she would prefer to be read the war memoirs (written about the year she spent in solitary confinement in a Russian prison) over Opera magazine we settled on reading from one of her biographies. This was a fabulous book that answered many of the questions I had for her. As I read to Eva about her own life I got a bit confused as to whether I should refer to her in the first or third person. She listened very carefully, had me repeat certain parts and confirmed each strange and interesting incident to be in fact true. Eventually Eva's headache was forgotten, I had learned very much about Eva's life and life in general, and I realized that I had missed my bus. I decided there was time to catch the next one and continued to read until the sun had drifted out of the sky and it was time to take Eva back inside to sit by the fire. At this point Eva kissed my hand goodbye and told me to come again. Jean drove me to the bus stop where I waited to catch a bus back into the city so I could catch another bus back to philly where I would then fly back (it had taken a lot of navigating to find my way to Eva that day).
Somehow I missed that next bus and waited for the next one which was going to get me into the city just in time to catch my philly bus. This bus however managed to hit a car as we pulled into rush hour traffic. I arrived ten minutes late and missed my next bus. So I ended up stuck near Madison Square Gardens waiting for the 1am bus. Frustrated and all tired out I wandered a few blocks and was reminded that although I was stranded at night I was in New York after all and this was exciting.
Sure enough the streets were packed with people and they were all oddly caring around circus souvenirs. Being a circus lover I decided to follow the glow sticks and ended up in a back alley where I met a man lurking about. He explained to me that the circus was over but he and a few other circus groupies were waiting there because they were breaking things down and soon would bring out the animals. He knew this because he had grown up in the circus during WWII so often came to watch the old behind the scenes action. I too, knew a thing about behind the scenes circus life and upon closer inspection realized it was this very circus I was familiar with.

One of my more exciting memories of childhood is from the time I got to meet Barnum and Bailey's Circus when they came through Seattle. I was a poor hippy kid who rarely was allowed to interact with "society," but my Dad had the idea to trade them some garden vegetables so we could go watch the circus. Gunther the Lion Tamer's wife took a liking to me and brought me back stage to meet the acrobats and clowns. The evening was topped off with being introduced to the elephants and allowed to ride on one. This night has remained a strong memory not only because of the glamor of the rind stone jewels on Gunther's wife's feather head dress but because it was the first time I was able to realize the kindness of strangers.
So here I was in New York in a parking lot at midnight with a ragtag gang of circus groupies who also wanted to say hello to the elephants. There was the old man who had been a circus kid, an airline security guard from Jersey, two fellows from the Bronx, a woman who told me her email was gypsywanderer and a little boy from Morocco who didn't speak English,kept singing clicky songs to himself (but shared his roasted peanuts with me). Each of these people also had spontaneously let themselves be led/gravitated to this parking lot for what turns out was "The Secret March of the Elephants."
Each year the Barnum and Bailey Circus comes to town and performs at Madison Square Gardens and the only way to get the elephants there is by train but Penn station now only has escalators. Thus it is necessary for them to board the train in Queens, which means the Elephants must secretly march through the streets of Manhattan at midnight.
And so at the end of this very long and complicated day of journeying very far to meet with a very old hero I was able to randomly come across another very old, longtime hero that happens to be an elephant. It turns out the same elephant I had ridden on as a child still was with this circus. At around midnight this elephant walked out into the parking lot, (gave me a little nod?), joined its trunk with the tail of another elephant and took off into the busy streets of Manhattan, New York...
Eva Zeisel views her work as a "playful search for beauty" and the objects she designs as gifts. When I asked her if she had a particular individual in mind while designing or humanity in general she responded "there is no difference." Going to meet Eva (I now see) I had some undertones and motivations that were not the most pure and positive. I was in awe of her many accomplishments and fame and wanted to come in contact with her greatness before the rarity of its existence would be taken away from this world. I approached her that day with 103 questions thats underlying grief and desperation basically all wanted to know "How will this world (and modern ceramic design) go on without Eva Zeisel"?! Leaving Eva and the elephant that day I was reminded that this playfulness, this search and all that is beautiful do not belong to one particular person,thing, place or time...but are constantly there for all of us to tap into. It is the responsability of each of us to engage and actively create goodness. This force can not be forced, but if we stay passionate, sincere and open...serendipity can lead us there.
Thank you Eva and thank you circus Elephant...
with awe, gratitude, and love,
Harmony

7 comments:

Carolyn said...

Harmony, your story is a beautiful one. Eva is also a long time hero of mine, and it was serendipity that I was invited to have tea with her. Truly one of the most memorable and meaningful experiences in my life that I hold dear to my heart. She is such an amazing soul.

NicolaSigel0508 said...

It's great!!..........................................

meredith host said...

harmony! i am so very jealous!

NOTANJA (Anja) said...

So true to hear the splashing font of beautiful pleasure is available to one and all, as well as all one. Well done!

Damon said...

Really awesome Harmony, so glad to hear your adventure is still alive. I love the part toward the end where she says, "there is no difference". I didnt know anything about this woman but I must look into her work/ life. Thanks. I hope you stay tightly loose forever, cant wait to hear the reports from China.

CBelmont said...

Harmony, I had tea with Eva yesterday. Being in the presence of someone who has beat all odds of achieving 103 with the most expressive hands was amazing. Eva held my hand close to her face as she told of her days at Pratt. Slowly with a soft voice told of the new design pieces in wire, and showed me original watercolor drawings on vellum from the 40's of patterns from her glorious dishware.

Lindy Gruger Hanson said...

Just happened upon this blog. I loved reading your story. I love how all the events of your day brought you to that very spot in Manhattan to see the elephants! I don't know about anything about Eva but I'll look her up online and investigate. That is wonderful that she is sharp at 103! Wow! I'm sure she is an amazing person.