The Middle Way

Zen Spot #51 — Mindfulness, meditation and a motorcycle trip to Willem de Kooning’s studio February 19, 2018 00:05

It began with a black cloth-covered book in the library

Tyler had a small library in 1980. Tyler School of Art, that is. The library offered a quiet respite between classes and was full of big cool art books. I’m not sure what drew me to the black book. It was smaller and beaten up, with fraying edges. Perhaps it was the fact that it was beaten up, worn from use and love.

It was dedicated to de Kooning’s Women series. I’d never seen anything like the work that called the book home. As a realist artist, to that point in life, abstract art was of no interest — until Willem de Kooning.

By cracking the book, a door had been opened.

Roberto Clemente

He was my favorite baseball player as a kid. I have no explanation why. He played in a town so far away from my home that it might as well have been in China. No memory exists about when I first read his name. He faded into my consciousness from nowhere and for no reason.

His contemporaries included Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrezemski, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and many other Hall-of-Fame players. In Philadelphia, at the time, Steve Carlton, Larry Bowa, Tim McCarver and Mike Schmidt were starters. I heard their names mentioned every night on the local evening news. In a sports-mad town, they couldn’t be missed. Yet, for some reason, I chose Roberto.

I never met him but my brother did. And Roberto was warm, the way a parent hopes a child’s hero would be.

The toilet bowl entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel 

Another book was cracked when the island of Manhattan appeared in front of me for the first time, as my bus eased through traffic and around the oval that drops you into the tunnel's toll booths, just in front of the gaping holes that swallow bus after bus after bus. The skyline. The awesome expanse. Forever into the distance. Still jaw-dropped at the sight of the twin towers, despite having seen them through the bus window, from ten miles away on the Jersey turnpike, I couldn't wait to set foot in the new world.

I was eighteen years old. Willem was seventy-six. Just to find him. Electricity, youth, the natives and curiosity would serve me. To my surprise, at the time, most famous artists were listed in the phone book. Not their agents or brokers, their personal telephone numbers. The phone book. That five pound weapon opened doors.

Cool. Where’s Willem?

East Hampton

He’d moved to Long Island permanently in 1971, the same year my brother met Roberto. Long Island was one of the five boroughs, right? The Queensborough Bridge offered hope. Brooklyn’s Bridge? How do I get there?

Hope. Nope. He was in a town so far away from where I was standing that it might as well have been in China. My world was small. It was reflected in my art and my heart.

A ‘47 front-end with a ‘57 back-end

Tommy Dunwoody’s beard was a ten inch braid. Red hair fell to his shoulders, holding more grease than a french fryer. He did so much crank that, while trying to simultaneously smoke and sleep for one hour every day, at lunch, he’d burn his chest when a smoldering butt would fall from a suspended hand while he laid down and dozed off. 

Dozens of burn marks stippled him. You don’t know Tommy, but if you know someone blessed with an infectious smile, you know Tommy’s smile. We worked together, during the summer, in shirtless heat, scraping boogers from the bottoms of elementary school desks, in stinking sweat that soaked through shorts, listening to WMMR, hoping to hear Little Feat. 

At 7:00 am, give or take, Tommy would arrive at the school we cleaned, on a Harley Davidson. Loud, proud, smiling, high. His hog had a ‘47 front-end and a ‘57 back-end — or that’s what he said. It was awesome.

Hogs, Enduros and Racers

I’ve never ridden a motorcycle but I’ve lived around plenty of Tommys, so a Hog should be a dream--especially since, for me, all riding is a dream. I'd prefer a bastard child however--a motocross bike made street legal with a headlight and a Hail Mary.  Perfect for chasing ghosts inside the ghost of the Cedar Street Tavern.

The dream of dream of a three and a half hour motorcycle ride to East Hampton.

Red wine, discourse, silliness and fading into nothingness

De kooning’s work awes me. That said, at an undefined point, I decided to let the dream fade. To a degree, bad decisions, Bordeaux and Budweiser made the decision for me. 

Despite his studio being in a rural area, my mind’s eye projected sharing red wine in an open air cafe on Bleecker Street. Listening to a master. Learning. Being given knowledge worth millions of dollars for the price of bottle. 

Silliness all around.

The thrill of Bill

I know little of Willem de Kooning’s temperament. Unlike some of his peers, I’ve never heard his voice. Video interviews, if they exist, have avoided me and, now, I avoid them. Perhaps he had an infectious smile like Tommy. I suspect he was quiet. And methodical. And serious.

A monk? A drunk monk? Legend holds.

I don’t want to know. I can sit in his studio any time I want because, while I’ve seen the maze of paintings in pictures, I never experienced the maze first-hand. Because I never mounted that headlight or said the Rosary, my imagination is free to sit anywhere in his studio I find myself, no matter where I find myself.

Eightfold Path

He's gone. So too is the need for idols and approval and proximity. The knowledge I sought I either had all along or got from the anonymous spirits to whom I should have been listening. Bad decisions, pain, Bordeaux and Budweiser helped.

After several breaths, the maze is mine and, if I breath quietly, methodically and seriously, it will fade away.

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About DharmaMechanic

An artist, entrepreneur and writer walking the Buddhist path, his art focuses on the Dharma Wheel. The four wheels shown above are among over 600 DharmaMechanic has created over the course of his career. Each has a unique story. If you’d like to read the story of these wheels or purchase a framed 20" x 20" ready-to-hang print, visit SilkDharma.com.

What are The Four Noble Truths?

  1. The truth of suffering
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering
  3. The truth of the cessation of suffering
  4. The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering

What is The Noble Eightfold Path?

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right action
  4. Right speech
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

What is a Dharma Wheel?