Fireflies on the Water by Yayoi Kusama, Whitney Biennial 2004
Vacation. Sunset. Your kid’s nap. Autumn. Christmas morning. Holding hands. Your looks.
When the end looms nearby, it’s hard to enjoy the experience itself.
It’s hard to be in the experience, rather than wring our hand’s over the impending finale. Whatever form that ending might take – the last chord, the first cry, the complete dark of night itself – knowing that it’s rushing inexorably toward us can prove a distraction, stopping us from lingering in the moment.
Perhaps I should just speak for myself.
In 2004, I went to the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art and saw an installation piece called “Fireflies on the Water.” The most unusual thing about this piece is the way one experiences it: alone. I had never before had a solitary experience in a museum. Usually, I feel like I’m part of a many-legged organism, shuffling quietly and slowly from room to room. In this case, though, people waited in a line that snaked through much of the rest of the exhibit. People kept asking, “What is this line for?” Anticipation grew.
At the door to the piece, a guard allowed one person to enter the room at a time. He opened the door just enough to usher in the visitor. He acted like one of the Buckingham Palace guards, not making eye contact, not talking to anyone. Perhaps he had been instructed to behave that way, trained so that he was effectively part of the installation.
After about a minute, the guard again opened the door a crack. One person came out, one person went in. The person emerging from the room was dazed and smiling, like someone who’d been kissed rather unexpectedly. Perhaps they had, in fact. I wondered madly what was in that room. I had the wild thought that it might be a fortune teller.
When it was my turn, the guard opened the door and I found myself on a sort of runway leading into the center of a small room. I say that it was small because I had walked around the outside of the room but, if I hadn’t known better, I could just as easily have believed that the room went on forever. The room felt infinitely small and enormous at the same time. This must be what Lucy felt like when she walked through that little wardrobe and plopped down in Narnia.
I walked down that narrow plank, over a pool of black water. Strands of tiny lights hung from the ceiling, reflected in the pool and also in mirrors on the walls and ceiling. When I searched the web to find a photo of the exhibit, I learned that the piece had 150 lights in it – an astoundingly small number, considering that, in my first draft of this post, I had written that the installation had millions of lights. It felt like being inside a living organism, or perhaps being inside the night sky. Not just outside at night time, but inside the night.
The experience made me stop breathing for a moment. Then, as soon as I’d taken a good look around, I thought, Well, the guard’s going to be opening the door soon. So, I preemptively turned back. This is my way, so very very often, not wanting to be a bother, not wanting to take up more of my share. When I had walked the path back to the door, the guard was not there, and I argued with myself over what to do. Should I open the door and leave? Should I turn around again so I could enjoy the piece a bit more? Should I just stand here and wait until the guard does come, surely in just a few moments?
By the time I had decided to study the installation for as long as I could, and turned back to do so, the door did open and there was the guard, along with the next visitor, eagerly awaiting his chance. I smiled politely, and walked out. Once outside, I felt irrationally desolate. My experience was over, and I would likely never get the chance again. Why had I spent it worrying about pissing other people off?
The experience really did turn out to be a fortune teller of sorts. How many times since have I found myself outside the moment, wanting to shake myself and shout, For goodness’ sake, please enjoy this! PLEASE! But no amount of insisting at myself helps me to learn what I need to know, which is how to wrap my arms around the moments of my life, even (or especially) when I know that they can not or will not last. The older I get, the more accutely aware I become that the moments slip by quickly and easily if we let them. And, often, I do let them, whether out of politeness, or fear, or habit. Yes, I might cook dinner every night, but I will never cook this dinner on this night again. I will never have this embrace with this friend again. Never again this walk with my daughter on this rainy spring afternoon.
I think of that experience in the museum frequently. The installation piece functioned as my own magical mirror gate, showing me my own true nature and flaws. This is the person I must love and accept, but I need not let her live half a life. Part of why I’ve started writing with renewed attention is the sense I have that writing helps me to live a fuller, more thoughtful sort of life. Writing gives me a reason and an outlet with which to examine the world, and myself within it.
Writing – whether it’s here, in stories, or on spare napkins – gives me a way to examine those few, flawed moments that I spent holding my breath in a room full of fireflies, and to make something more of them. And that’s the best way I know to make the moments count – even, and especially, those “firefly” moments that insist on glowing for so short of time. Look carefully.