He was no ordinary mime. A portal opened from another realm, and he would step through and onto Planet Earth, 40.7789º N, 73.9637º W, before the sweeping steps of the Metropolitan Museum. It was New York City in the 1970s. I was a college student, and my art class met at the museum. Whenever he was there, I was mesmerized by his vibrancy, his intensity, and his silent movement.
Watching him was that moment before lightning hits, when you can sense electricity in the air and feel the back of your neck tingle. He could bend time without uttering a word. Everything would speed up and he’d be manic, weightless, strong. Everything would shift to slow motion. He’d move with grace; centered, solid, fluid. At times, he was as still as stone. Or animated, funny. Earthy, but not earthly, as his ephemeral creations morphed from this to that. You, my friend, like me, would stop and be in the moment.
I saw him enough that I later recognized him on a TV show, without his face paint, but still out of this world. He played an alien. The show: Happy Days. His name: Robin Williams.
You know the rest of the story. He made us laugh long and loud…he was a soldier in the war on sadness. We knew some of his own battles, but did not, until last year, know how brave he was. With so much of his work filled with language and sound, the memory of him, performing in silence, haunts me.
A portal opened from another realm, 37.9128º N, 122.4756º W. It was Paradise Cay, CA, August 11, 2014. Silently, Robin Williams stepped into it, and out of, Planet Earth. You, my friend, like me, stopped to be in the moment. We let his silence fill us.
Archaeologists argue the actual date when the first painter stenciled his hand onto cave walls, somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 years ago. Earliest man was compelled to make a mark, to leave something behind. A memory of him. A gift to us. The human hand is a powerful symbol of our human potential. Flesh and blood, our life coursing through our veins, from our hearts to our hands, and into our sensitive fingers. Touch is how we experience the world.
The hand can reach and grasp: a tool, a paintbrush, a pen, a weapon. Perhaps its greatest strength is what it conveys through gesture, in both the secular and sacred world. Our non verbal communication is a affirmation that something beyond words connects us. The symbolism of a hand gesture may only be within the context of esoteric rite or ritual and known only to that community. Or, it may extend itself to the global family. Our communal symbols and signs are how we experience the world.
From the shameless to the sublime, we know what gestures signify. It is the rudeness of giving someone the proverbial finger. Thumbs up, thumbs down. The calm of the open V peace sign, the power of the fist clenched in solidarity. Deliverance. Defiance. The Hindu and Buddhist mudras. Hands in prayer. The bending of ring finger and pinky in benediction blessing as a sign of the Trinity. A kohen (priest) forming the Hebrew letter “Shin” with both hands, fingers split (“shin” also represents the word Shaddai, a name for God) to confer a blessing.
In an episode of television’s Star Trek called Amok Time, Leonard Nimoy‘s character, Mr. Spock, half human, half alien, is introducing us to other people of his Vulcan race. We are glimpsing an alien greet his alien community. To signify the moment, and to create a richness of their culture and civility, Nimoy created the single hand, split finger version of the kohen’s Hebrew blessing he had seen as a boy. The Vulcan race, with its manner of ritual, of greeting, of community, offers the sign to one another with its message: “Live long and prosper.” It was the power of the hand, the strength of its gesture. Nimoy said that it “touched a magic chord.” It did. We immediately understood.
Leonard Nimoy died on Friday, February 27, 2015. He was 83. He has left his mark, his memory, and his gift to us, in that same unending way as the early man stenciling his hand on a cave wall. To the far reaches of space, where words and time hold no sway, the enduring image remains.
Orbiting 250 miles (400 km) above earth on the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Terry Virts commemorated the passing of Leonard Nimoy with the Vulcan hand gesture. To the right of Virt’s hand is Nimoy’s home state, Massachusetts, though Leonard Nimoy’s world would become so much bigger. We give the greeting to Mr. Nimoy, who gave it to us, this one last time. We offer it in softest silence, as he, now with his fully human heart at rest, makes his voyage to the eternal frontier.
Your creativity is an egg. Fragile, evolving.
It requires warmth, incubation, nurturance, and the space to crack out of a seemingly unbreakable shell. Rock it till its ready. Let it out. Repeat.
And you? You are stronger than you think.
The photo is from Klaus Enrique’s amazing ‘Arcimboldo’ series.
“The living owe it those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.” – Czeslaw Milosz
It was my own fault, finding myself on Mars like this. Such a strange and hostile atmosphere. The thought of two moons rising trumped common sense, and decent air. I can only take short breaths.
I followed him here, you know. What difference did it make? I was lost to begin with.
He opened the door, but I came and went through the window. It seemed easier that way. The air inside became as strange and hostile as the air outside, only more toxic. What I gave freely, and what was taken away, cannot be recovered. I get that.
But, I shouldn’t have announced my leaving, knowing it would serve no purpose, and would only fuel his rage. “If you go, you can’t get back in,” he’d say. Again and again. For all my threats, I’d come back in through that damn window, again and again. Inside was the known damaged and damaging atmosphere. Outside was the unknown damaged and damaging landscape.
Out the window I went, clinging to the ledge, ready to jump. I’ve done it so many times. He slammed it down before I cleared the sill. It closed hard on my knuckles. The blood lubricated my hands, and I pulled free. My fingers were scraped and bleeding; my hands, throbbing. I could hear him curse me through the window.
I took shallow breaths, trying to form words – a curse, a prayer…something. It was like a bad dream, when you try to speak, but no words come out. A line from an old Townes Van Zandt song, “won’t you lend your lungs to me,” played itself over and over in my head, “mine are collapsing…”
Every door locked. Every window shut tight. There was no concern with hope or salvation. There was only now, this moment, and the desire to take a long, deep breath, impossible in this red and angry place.
– Toni Tan, “Phobos and Deimos” ©2014
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day…
“Scaffolding” by Seamus Heaney
Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;
Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.
And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.
So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me,
Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall,
Confident that we have built our wall.
You can this photograph and more of my work on zenfolio