The Stuff Of Dreams

The pearl is my birthstone. I have always been proud of its history, of its oblique beginnings at the bottom of the sea. I have always been proud of its fame: of La Peregrina (“priceless and incomparable in this world”), La Huerfana, Hope, Arco Valley. They’ve done time hanging from the necks of royalty, aristocrats, and criminals. I’ve seen the pearl featured in paintings: resting against the trussed chests of Isabella of Portugal

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and Mary I;

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hanging from a young woman’s ear in astral splendor in “The Girl With A Pearl Earring”.

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Pearls symbolize innocence and decorate the veils of brides; yet they also decorate the chariot of Neptune, raw and swarthy. Pearls have traditionally symbolized the tear drops of the moon: a delightful thought.

On the other hand, I’ve always had pity for the lapis lazuli birthstone. The name is unwieldy and unpronounceable. Uncomfortably foreign, I was never even sure of its color. It is the birthstone of December, and I have since learned that it isn’t even its primary gem – losing to the turquoise and blue topaz in an azure competition. I knew nothing of its meaning, its worth, its use.

But I know now, and I am somewhat ashamed to have held such a noble stone in contempt for so many years.

First, there is the look of it. Its color is a rich, royal blue; it sparkles with pyrite, giving it a look of a twilight sky dazzled with golden stars. Its color was of such intense opulence and rarity, it was mined as far back as the 7th millennium BC to be used as the finest jewelry. Minutely carved scarabs and beads have been found in Neolithic burials in the Caucasus and Mauritania. The Babylonians and Assyrians used it for jewelry as well, for amulets and cylinder seals, the small engraved cylinders used to roll impressions onto clay. Invented around 3500 BC, they have been found in gravesites, to provide good fortune for the dead.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, from the 17th-18th century BC, is recognized as one of the oldest known works of literature. Many times lapis lazuli is mentioned, the first time, many agree, a precious stone has appeared in a narrative:

From the prologue:
“Pick up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travels of Gilgamesh, all that he went through…”

Ishtar beseeches Gilgamesh:
“Be you my husband, and I will be your wife.
I will have harnessed for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold”

Gilgamesh declares in “The Flood Myth”:
“Ye gods, as surely as I shall not forget this lapis lazuli [amulet] around my neck, I shall be mindful of these days and never forget them!”

It was saved for the most exclusive of adornments. Powdered lapis was used as eyeshadow by Cleopatra. It was used to embellish the funeral mask of Tutankhamun.

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Royal and priestly garments were shamelessly dyed with the mystic blue in order to designate their status as gods. Catherine the Great used lapis lazuli to decorate The Lyons Hall of the Catherine Palace, saturating ceiling and furniture with impenetrable majesty.

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By the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli was being ground into the most valuable of all blue pigments, ultramarine “the most perfect of all colors”. It found its way into lush Baroque skies, Renaissance frescoes; it was an exalted color, used for Annunciations and the Virgin’s cloak. It was even used to color the turban the young woman wore, as thick with light as her celestial earring.

So in history, art and literature the lofty excellence of lapis lazuli has played a significant part. But its fame does not stop there; it has one more role to play: the leading one, the force that drives the tangled mythos of alchemy.

Lapis is the Latin word for “stone”. And every transmutation, equation, calculation and alteration that burns in the alchemical retort is for one purpose: to purify the “dark matter” the earthy “chaos” that had putrefied the four elements since the fall of Adam and to elevate them once more towards the celestial belt, the Elysian “lapis”.

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It is the “lapis philosophorum”, the Philosopher’s Stone, the sun and moon tree, the Treasure-house of Wisdom “from there that wisdom rises” (Umail at-Tamimi, 10th century), and described by Hermes Trismegistus in The Emerald Tablet: “the father of it is the Sun, the mother of it is the Moon; the wind carries it in its belly; the nurse thereof is the Earth”.

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Now, it is true that the surname of ‘Lazuli’ does not appear in these obscure teachings, but the lapis lazuli is universally known to represent truth, enlightenment and inner vision – perhaps a nod and a wink to the twisted logic and bizarre mathematics of its alchemic ancestry.

In “The Tempest”, Shakespeare wrote the words, ‘We are such stuff/As dreams are made on’. They were spoken by the magician Prospero, as he reflected on the similarity between the spiritual and the corporeal, the confrontation between the dreaming and waking states. In very different circumstances, a rumpled cynic contemplated the statue of a dark falcon, naming its strange appeal as ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’ – the futility, the greed, the desperation, the hopeless competitive spirit that keeps people reaching for what they can never grasp.

But I still insist that the stuff of dreams are buried in the earth, that they are swimming beneath the waves. They have complexities of color and shape; they shine in the darkness. And they were born out of the most extraordinary circumstances: from the irritation of a grain of sand to the formative power of sediment, rivers and volcanoes.

But it was the caprice of humanity which gave the gemstones added meaning and value – long after they were pulled out of their earthly homes. But we can’t help it. We will always dream.

Wives and Widows

I have a widow’s peak. When I was very young, my mother explained that it was a sign of beauty. I don’t know what her references were, but I was at the age when I grabbed at compliments like I would handfuls of candy, so I accepted her observation willingly.

And yet – I didn’t know what made the curving horizon of my forehead so attractive. I didn’t understand the aesthetics of the thing. Perhaps my widow’s peak did not make me beautiful after all – maybe it only made me different. And when you’re 10 years old, individuality can be a fearsome, crushing weight. And a subtle, perceptive mother would recognize this and make sure her daughter understood that her widow’s peak was a superior thing, something fine and unique.

But is it really? A cold definition, not interested in making one warm and confident, states that a widow’s peak is a meeting point in the center of the forehead, when hair growth on either side – in the bilateral periorbital fields – is suppressed. The trajectory in each arena is arched and the intersection lower than usual. It isn’t hereditary, it can’t be predicted, it doesn’t skip generations (like porphyria, the madness of King George). It just appears: a dainty, symmetrical deviance.

However, in face of the untenable wording, the altered fields and unexpected harvests, there is still the evocative name. Widow’s peak: fraught with imagery, elegiac, plaintive…where did it come from? The term itself was first used in 1840:  some time before Victoria became a widow, living in Windsor in dark and aggressive mourning.

A 19th century mourning cap when worn by a young widow would be a headdress with dark streamers of silk or crepe, drenched in flowers and lace with delicate pleats of knitted veils. Its silhouette resembled a hood and met at mid-forehead in a subtle point.

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The mourning hood was also called a Mary Stuart Cap, referring to a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots from around 1561, wearing her widow’s weeds.

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Her husband of less than one year, Francis II, had recently died of such a collection of ailments that physicians in some confusion marked down cause of death as an ‘abscess’. Mary was now free to skip with fey ignorance down an increasingly calamitous matrimonial path.

This type of hood had been in use since the 1530’s and featured a triangular fold of cloth at its highest peak. Its shape was formed with wires and meant to fit tightly. With its subtle curves and bends it was designed to hold a veil and give the wearer’s face a delicate look. She peered with pretty, feminine grief from within a heart-shaped framework of filaments and silk.

Add to these histories the old wives tale, which says that a widow’s peak is an omen of early widowhood, and this is an anthology of irrefutable proof that the coy summit is well named indeed. These stories summarize the sad and gentle reference for my widow’s peak.

But some references are not so sad. On December 11, 1936, before the dust of his brother and Wallis Simpson had even settled, Albert Frederick Arthur George was crowned George VI. Shortly after, a letter appeared in a New York paper, asking:  “In many of the pictures
of the Coronation there is shown at the back of the royal party a statuesque brunette with a widow’s peak. Who is she?”

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She was Lady Ursula d’Abo, and on that day she was part of the coterie of giggling debutantes who were attending on the new King and Queen. Her serene beauty and vivid Snow White coloring made her famous overnight.

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Disney’s “Snow White” came out the following year, and while the model used for the princess was the dancer Marjorie Celeste Belcher, I believe Lady Ursula held quite a striking resemblance as well.

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Ursula’s autobiography, “The Girl With The Widow’s Peak” reflects on a happy, lush upbringing at Belvoir Castle, a medieval bulk that rose above a green tangle of forest, the center of an estate that embraced more than 15,000 acres. With a kitchen staff of 20, a cook that read tea leaves, a tack room with saddles trimmed in silver, vast Christmas parties for the estate workers, it was a world that performed ‘at full throttle . . . like a cross between a luxury hotel, a museum and a theater.’

She would marry twice. And outlived both husbands.

So the history of the widow’s peak actually has its roots in beauty as well as tragedy. Perhaps my mother was right, after all. Perhaps I should have known.

Sanctum Sanctorum

The corner of Los Angeles where I live in is a muscular one, rippling with cars and businesses. This is a common enough observation for most city-dwellers, nothing to see here, really.

I can take a walk and come across a handful of trees, or a garden the size of a thimble trying to jump onto the changing of seasons as one would jump onto a carousel already in motion. Sometimes a spring-time bird dares me to come closer, cocking its head in a petite threat. Sometimes in the morning I will see a veil of spider webs embroidered with crystals of dew…and I often wonder if I would be able to see my microscopic image in those minute prisms.

But these are stray images – out of place, like a homeless animal.

If I had the whim to regale myself in the concentrated greenery of a park, I would need to widen the vistas of my walk. My neighborhood does not possess those shrouded acreages, soft with unpaved roads and the secluded air rich with the scent of earth. In these shadowy climates, the sun is given only brief visitation rights, waiting outside for admission.

But I do have a park, and it is a little over a mile away.

It has a unique location, an organic layer that floats above slow currents of antediluvian tar. Its progress is made even more laborious by the detached bones and fossilized bodies that block its circulation. There are even places where the tar erupts through the living crust in black, oily lakes streaked with tarnished rainbows.

The park itself is sparse and manicured, its scattered trees frail with small leaves breathing through arid veins. The grass is pounded flat by dogs and children on field-trips: both off the leash. On the outskirts of the park there are flimsy bowers with blossoms the color of summer heat, flowering in thirsty pastels. They are grown from the seeds of their primordial ancestors. Seismic eons ago their elders blanketed the streets, the sidewalks, my neighborhood in unimagined numbers, billowing like earth-bound clouds.

All trees in the park are isolated, growing independent and impartial. I sometimes come away with the impression that I could shatter them into twigs with my bare hands. However, there is one section of the park – small, barely the smallest fraction of an acre. Enclosed within this space is a diminutive grove of trees; only a handful, but they stand close to each other like the Three Graces, with their arms around each other’s waists.

The air in this copse is dense and verdant, smelling sweetly of freshly turned soil. The ground is crisp with leaves; the darkness is from another season, a perpetually lurking sunset. It is a view to see breathe in as well as to see.

The last time I looked into this comforting landscape, I realized that I was not alone. The leaves were restless and crackling with undecided, frenetic movements. I peered closer and saw that the inhabitant was a squirrel. Something important had been misplaced – something edible, clearly, judging from the hectic, chaotic movements most often associated with the loss of a harvest.

Only once did it stop – to stare directly at me, as if daring me to invade its sanctum sanctorum.

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But I respected its audacity, and stayed where I was. I was content to play the role of spectator although I knew, as I’m sure my squirrel acquaintance did, that this would be the closest to the forest I coveted that I would ever get.

A Tenuous Relationship

It has always been the case. Before I can take in the rest of the painting – the child’s scarlet suit, the zoological arrangement of pets at his feet, his lineage of names printed at the border – I can see only one thing: his fleeting yet arresting similarity to my brother. This simpatico of youth resides, I think, in the eyes: round and expansive; their gaze roaming like colts beneath a wide, pure forehead.

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The child in this painting carries the weighty name of Don Manuel Rosario de Zuñiga. Pink cheeks and a face dusted with arsenic powder obscure his Mediterranean prettiness. He wears a short jacket buttoned to his trousers, for he has recently been “breeched”: graduating from the children’s frock coat to a man’s sartorial estate. The wide collars, the silk sash wrapped around a nebulous waist, the rosettes on his slippers are all the color of melting silver daubed with pleats of lace.

Francisco de Goya painted this portrait in 1787. He would shortly become the official painter for Charles IV and his stilted, vacuous court. Goya’s brutality and honesty found its appetites sated with such bland meat. In a portrait of Charles IV and his family, he fearlessly portrays the family as he saw them: stupid, bulky and foolish. But the gowns of golden thread, the coats embroidered in lace and diamonds were painted with great accuracy. They were delighted with the work and gave Goya many commissions – encouraging the viper in their midst.

But when faced with this unknowing child – not to blame for his aristocracy – the coiled snake became subdued, its fangs swallowed, choking on its venom. My brother’s lookalike is portrayed as an innocent staring into his future adulthood: confused and stunned, but not necessarily afraid. We’re unable to perceive the abyss he sees; but it is perhaps reflected in the vaguely frightening playroom in which he stands. Full of shadow, lacking furniture, it is a lonely equation of geometric planes and shapes. Even his pets are delicately disturbing: the magpie (holding a card bearing the artist’s name) is fettered by a leash; the trapped finches are ogled by three Cheshire cat lookalikes – well-fed and emerging from the depths like savage ghosts.

But perhaps Goya took pity on the child for another reason. He might have had an inkling that Don Manuel would shortly become a ghost himself – he would be dead in five years.

My Wedding

I found the ring of bone by the rim of the ocean, balanced on the wreckage of kelp and wood verdant with the opaque scents of brinish decay.  Its center was round and musical:  like a bell, it must have rung repeatedly as it spun through its submerged world, dappled with prims of light and scales.  But before me now, a stationary instrument, it was quite silent.

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It was the color of froth and ivory; drenched in gentle sepia and as pale as a ship’s sails billowing with the ocean’s nautical edicts.   Cut by the whim of the sea and the fist of the tide, its outline was as crooked as the shorelines of continents.  Its maritime alchemy was of salt, riggings as tangled as discarded corsets, drowned mists and the breath of fishes.  Its core was a rosette, curling like the architectural heart of a flower.  Polished by currents of sand, molded by the curving, relentless acres it came to an end on the rocks:  broken and finished.

And there I found it – my accidental gift refined by the jeweler whose horizon extended into a silver oblivion.  I placed it on my finger and I sensed the approval:  in the salty breeze heavy with the voices of whales and seabirds; in the sounds of the pearls and scallops that tumbled through shrimp-pink grottos.  I sensed their misty chorus:  their pelagic blessing on my marriage to the sea.

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Forever Stories

The tiny wisps of cardboard are pierced with cords of braided silk, the delicate inventions from a finer, more polished era.  They were created to dangle from a girl’s powdered wrist or to slide along her forearm, perspiring prettily inside its satin glove:  the swath of pastel colored skin worn so tightly that it could not be worn a second time.

Like dried flowers, dance cards might symbolize something that is deceased, yet they are pressed with a tincture of living memory.  Light and music, the swish of bustles and embroideries, the click of patent leather shoes, the scent of hair drenched in oils and pomades:  such things and more permeate these cards. The names written inside, though little more than claimants – not to be denied – were at the same time proof:  of the girl’s success, of her blossoming popularity, of her delicate blush, of her tiny waist.

Sometimes the cards are shaped like butterflies; during wartime they can be shaped like tanks;  some have the shape of fans and some are edged with fringed silk like an old man’s beard.  The ones from military academies might have a tiny sword to dangle in merry accompaniment with the cord.  Some have silhouettes of dancing couples in historic or current dress – and some are flushed with sentimental Victorian colors of spring and summer:  peach and turquoise, sapphire and honey, jade and gilt.

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However, sometimes the cards remained empty:  gripped within the clenched hands of girls with no one to accompany them except for a chaperon, or a loyal friend equally disregarded.  They surrounded the outskirts of the ballroom like a rim of sad clouds, a soft horizon of taffeta and silk, glittering with loneliness.  These were the generations of young ladies who, for one reason or another, found themselves ignored and who out of necessity were forced to make an art out of not caring.

All of these emotions – set to the sweep of waltzes or the slide of the foxtrot and blackbottom, casting shadows against competitive acres of tremulous candle light or light that exploded with electricity – permeate the dance card like perfume.  The glittering laughter, the scent of cosmetics, the frisson of curls still trembling from their abuse under the iron…all of the remnants of a passionate, frantic toilette saturate the tiny cards.

They open like books to reveal diaries of hope, excitement and defeat – the very alchemy of youth. In their way, these narratives make them more evocative than paintings – the unnamed lady claimed for a dance becomes more known to us than the portrait condemned by the artist to remain unblinking for as long as wood and canvas endure.  The unseen becomes more understood than the seen.     And the layers of haunted and haunting stories – like geologic strata – will last forever.

The Photographer’s Choice

Not necessarily young, falling short of pretty, she was still the photographer’s choice. What beauty she had was of the pragmatic type: nothing more than a product of sensibility and symmetry. A vague intellect is evident in her level brows, unexciting thoughts ruminate and press against the lines of her temples, like sheep.

Even though they had hopefully dressed her as an odalisque, her body could not oblige. She possessed no animal seduction, no curves suffused with incense, none of the golden mystery of the voluptuous harem. The tapestries in the studio did not hide a flock of jealous concubines, nor a battalion of incorruptible eunuchs. All that kept her company was a blue parrot, balanced on its perch and staring down at its mistress, a graceless combination of experienced housewife and wishful concubine.

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They chose her because she was willing to pose for an hour or two, for the payment of a meal, or a handful of coins. She was their clumsy Scheherazade, willing to wear the cheap trappings born from the fancies of a western world mesmerized by dreams of the Far East. A bolero embroidered with pearls of yellowing luster, dull jewelry that stained her skin, scarves hemmed with false bullion. One arm awkwardly balances a tambourine waggishly trimmed with scarlet tassels. The other is bent so that the hand, clenched in a nervous fist, is pressed against her head. The dark smudge showing in the exposed armpit is evidence that this was a century when a lady was not supposed to manicure herself too assiduously.

The nudity of her torso is implied, rather than advertised: a startled exposure half expected and only half welcome. Her femininity is stolid and respectable – she does not belong in this dusty seraglio.

But she tried. She really did. Her assumed posture was foolish yet gallant. Her knees – daringly yet shyly – are apart. But her ankles are crossed. And she has refused to remove her sensible shoes.

Neptune’s Beard

Tendrils of Neptune’s beard

Rising in ivory coils

And covering the sea like a veil of marble

To reach through the weeping breakwater

Like mischievous fingers

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The pale curiosities

The mermaids breathless fans

Busy explosions of salt and light

Wink beneath the seaweed like drowned irises

Amidst the blu-eyed scallops

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Cast across the waves like nets

That stretch over pelagic miles

And pull at the chin of a submerged god

Who lies beneath the wandering patterns

To watch the ocean’s lively tapestry

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The Clean Sweep

“I can give you only a scattering of some of the crumbs of one man’s year, and the penny music whistles. Any memory, of the long, revolving year, will do, to begin with.” – Dylan Thomas

Not long ago I was reminded of one of my favorite Dylan Thomas pieces, “The Crumbs of One Man’s Year”. It is a soft, elegiac piece – its reflections scented lightly with rain and gentle regrets. The words are contemplative and full of understanding.

Whenever I read it, I seem to follow the writer on a journey through woods that are eternally harvest-colored, listening to the sibilant rustling of a river, watching the thoughts sailing across it like lost ships. I walk through cold air that is colored in muted pearl and infused with memories.

I thought of this essay when I was engaged on a task that was far less sentimental. I was, in fact, clearing the last remnants of my holiday cooking from the kitchen table. Pecan pieces, sprinkles, sweepings of flour and sugar: all the crumbs of my holiday were brushed away. But I did not lament – save for the poor job of cleaning I had done mere days ago – nor was I sad.

Yet the homely act of wrapping my hand in a faded kitchen towel and passing it over the tired, wooden table made me think. As the crumbs trickled towards me I recalled the year’s Thanksgiving, steeped in expectation and golden, buttery smells. As the scraps vanished into the folds of the cloth I was briefly reminded of Christmas and the flock of cookies that descend on my home like frosted and sweetened clouds. I saw the ropes of silver beads that held aloft the cards and caught once more the coy smell of pine which greeted me like a long-awaited friend for so many weeks.

They would be washed away, vanishing in a vague spiral down the drain. But fleetingly, the crumbs had caused me to remember, and to be thoughtful. And to take comfort that in a year’s time I would be performing the same chore again, and reminiscing – deeply, wistfully – about another year: its promises and its spent possibilities.

Temptation

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.  Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for things it has forbidden to  itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” – Oscar Wilde

I finished all the leftover Christmas cookies.