cork in a bottle

I felt anxiety flying on planes when I was younger and I have reflected recently on the image of a cork in a bottle. A cork in a bottle, a sweet flight attendant told me during a purple patch of storm, never sinks. You can shake it from all sides but, like a plane, it floats on the surface.

I think the image of a cork in a bottle can provide clarity onto the concept of tumbling into complacency. Depression could be a term more people understand. “Tumbling” occurs because depression is an extreme state, yet succumbing to it is the aggregation of small pains.

I think most people exist, myself included, in the median range of two extremes. Veer towards creativity or veer towards complacency, but moving too close to one extreme end of the spectrum is emotional explosion. Or in the case of depression, implosion.

I read a passage in The Empathy Exams about the historical glorification of the women as a vessel, doomed to bear children and bear agony and bear a weaker physical composition than men. The historical turn came at modernity when feminism slowly crept into cultural consciousness. Women today take that feminist turn to an extreme, rejecting female pain. In a postmodern turn, women in recent culture embrace coping mechanisms as the bulwark of their humanity. In Sex and the City, talking about the pain men caused with witty, obtuse conversation defined fighting the experience of female pain. My mother was part of that generation, of a generation that rejected men and rejected being pinned as sufferers. Today, women watch Girls. Girls glorifies the women that do not only fight pain but create pain for themselves to make it ironic. If a man hurts you, you binge drink and laugh about it with your friends. You pick up a smoking habit and fight with kimono-wearing female followers about its disastrous effects on your health. You make art and then tell everyone you made art to feel better.

This passage of the book came up when my friend and I discussed Amy Winehouse. I told her that I saw the Amy documentary. She told me she could never watch it because it made her sad. I asked why and she said because she thinks there are women in the world like those described in the book that indulge in the idea of drinking and smoking and taking pills to fight pain, and then there are some people that do those things to try to fight pain. “Try” being the difference. Some women actually can’t stop the pain and those are the ones we should feel sorry for.

I thought, after she said that, about the kind of woman that Amy Winehouse was. Authentic is one way to put it. I think the more helpful characterization is vulnerable. She was open to the world and all it made her feel and when it reared its ugly head she clung from idea to idea, substance to substance, flight attendant to flight attendant to tell her it was OK. She did a duet with Tony Bennett once, her musical idol, and spent the entire time apologizing for her voice. I remember watching that scene in the movie and thinking that was the poster child of vulnerability.

To continue with a metaphor, Amy sought balance with forces that only rocked the water more. I think of her taking a hit of crack one day and heroin the next as the centrifugal forces of a storm. A smash from the left, a smash from the right.

I meditate on the image of the cork in the bottle and I think of healthy habits. I think of the walks I take in nature and how branches naked of bark, sticking out so majestically green and soothing. I think of how good sweat clinging lightly to my back feels right before I take off a sweater. I think about how aesthetics matter, how aesthetics get a bad name from the way society casts aside appearances and yet allows, en masse, appearances to mobilize war. In reality, in calm, lucid, walk-in-the-woods reality, aesthetics is art.

Aesthetics are the sharp kick of feeling I get when I make art and I realize it is not balanced.

I think nature seeks balance and I think art and nature align. The Empathy Exams also talks about our society’s pitting of art and science against each other when in reality they are different molds of the same clay. I feel calm like a cork on the water when I write a sentence with balance, because with balance eventually comes flow and that is creativity. I’m sure that painters feel calm when they paint a stroke of light yellow that offsets the emerald of a dark swathe of their landscape painting, or that sculptors feel calm when they make the left buttock of an ancient Roman painting just virile enough to make a statement of the beauty of the human form, or that photographers feel calm when they take a picture that captures a woman jumping ever so slightly into the cold air of a morning that makes her feel alive in a way that he feels alive when he sees the light hitting her hair. Which brings me to another idea, that creativity may be the antithesis to depression, which I experience now as I write this. I seek the balance of a cork in a bottle and I begin to find flow I unlock the state that once made life seem grey and worthless and it starts to get color back. Color — is there any greater aesthetic?

I wish I had a neat way to tie Amy back into this. I guess that’s why it was hard for my friend to examine her plummet. There is no orderly, artistic beauty to her death when examined as more than a spectacle. She embodies a path of life that any vulnerable human being can face. She found aesthetics — her voice was miraculous — but she had no balance. She had no intrinsic balance, no ability to float upon the aesthetics of the world around her and accept the storms as they came. Whether creativity pulls us to the linchpin of balance or whether a walk in the wood opens us again to aesthetic wonder and unlocks our creativity, walks in the woods, talking to a friend, drinking the perfectly warm cup of tea, kissing someone really long and really hard, lying in a soft, welcoming bed, or holding another person’s hand, like a flight attendant, can restore the openness to the world that in one fell swoop can become vulnerability.

I espouse such openness, I believe it must be cultivated and protected like a flower. A flower, my mother told me recently, needs a lot of care. Just the right amount of water so it can breathe but does not drown.