Monthly Archives: March 2009

Remembering Leo – a eulogy for my father

Leo_Purdon_2

 

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My father was a teacher. This is what he taught me.

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He was raised in a time, in a family, with values, virtue, and a tradition of serving others. And with other like-minded families in his adopted country, all shared among themselves sustenance, warmth, and hope.

Too soon though, he experienced our country in the pathos and despair of the Great Depression. Soon afterward, in his military service, he witnessed the agony and tragedy of the Second World War.

And the contradictions he felt– the inspiring potential of the human being as compared with the utter failure of the institutions human beings invent – he could not reconcile. The urge to do that, to understand what it is that makes our rules, regulations, and institutions so often inhuman – was his basic motivation.

So he went about his days working hard to elevate, to humanize the situations he found himself in. When he began to assume leadership roles in the institutions he was questioning, an amazing thing would happen. He was somehow able both to lead and to question those very institutions.

By the end of his days he had witnessed precipitous declines in the major institutions of our time. In the end they failed him – even the medical profession failed him.

In the end he knew that our rules, regulations, and institutions fail us because they are not human. Only we are human. And it is always our challenge to humanize the artificial worlds we create and inhabit. Otherwise we are in danger of turning our homes, our schools, our churches, our cities – all institutions – into prisons.

We can accomplish our highest goals and fulfill our destiny by the simple method of listening to ourselves and each other closely enough to hear our heartbeats – by remembering, practicing, and envisioning what it means to be fully human.

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Dr. Leo A. DeSantis – November 5, 1926 – March 26, 2009 – Biographical Information
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Image: Dr. Leo A. DeSantis, circa 1954, photo by Purdon

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Being Dreaming

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The dreams return. Waking life becomes a mere context for dreaming. The weight of being shifts from existence to essence – from landscape to mindscape. My appearance belies my experience. I am there now, not here.

In the past week I have revisited my dreams of Keith Haring, my family, all humanity. I am filled with sensations of imminence, transcendence, transformation…

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(The following passage is from Chapter 8 of Reading Lies Dreaming, by Tullio Francesco DeSantis)

Falling into bed is all that’s left to do.
I drift… She is here.
“Dawn?”
“Yes, it’s me, Art. I’m here in your dream. This one moment is ours. He wants to see you. You know who I mean…”
The path we walk, or at least, the path that slides beneath my feet is cool. We are both nude. She floats effortlessly just ahead of me.
The shiny pebbles underfoot scrape the tips of my bare toes. I want her. I’m drawn toward her but the stones are jagged now. This is Turtle Isle! I’m here with Dawn… I’m conscious… I know somewhere back there, I am also sound asleep.
Metallic pulsations–cricket sounds–scatter my thoughts. I am all sensation now, seeing close-up worlds and distant vistas simultaneously–smooth veins in each bright leaf, the slow sway of branches, millions of leaves, flow of fluids through transparent trees, miles of river spanning serpentine valleys, cascades of rushing water, tons of buttressed boulders–my senses expanding, filling the cool air with perception, consciousness. I am ears, eyes, heart, and empty mind; sound, sight and feeling without thought. I am life–in life–all of life. Dawn rises. She is soaring above me.
I float higher now, lifting off, unsteady at first, drifting. I’m lacking confidence. She simply moves her hand and I sense her message: “Trust yourself. You can do it. You can fly through this dreamworld, as I am flying.”
Yes, small movements of my body are magnified by my will to fly. I’m just above the verdant canopy of trees. Another lunge and I’m in a daytime sky. A brilliant blue-and-white cloudscape surrounds us. I can see three azure dimensions from horizon to horizon.
The ruddy rooftops of Reading stacked in rows rim the hills of my homeland. The jagged Pagoda silhouette capping Mt. Penn towers over vast acres of deciduous forest. Miles of railroad track, metallized mindscape of my art, are miniaturized in the quickly receding landscape of my dream.
Dawn hovers beside me now, her unspoken words–echoes in my mind, urge me to travel on alone: “You will know him when you see him. I am returning now to the dream from which I came. Good bye, Art.”
All sensations of aliveness leave with her. In an instant the sky is dark, black as paint, then gray. I’m suspended in a dense thundercloud. Lightning sparks within the thick atmosphere are eerie, incandescent, effulgent. My body is no more but I am still here, waiting, alone, waiting.
I am at the old oak table in the communal farmhouse in Gettysburg. The signs–Hendrix posters, the upright piano painted geometrically in brilliant hard-edged enamel, psychedelic colors, herb teas on wooden shelves, the old steel wheat grinder–are everywhere apparent. My hair falls Samson-like over the muscular shoulders of my youth. It is the late 1960s. By the freshly tattooed scorpion on my left arm I know in an instant it is 1969 and that I am twenty-one years old.
My friends are in the next room. I hear their heavy breathing, the muffled sounds of their slumber. It is almost morning and I am the only one here who is awake. The room begins to expand and contract with my breathing. I rise slowly and begin a near somnambulant descent toward the basement.
This old homestead, used as an emergency hospital during the civil war, has housed ghosts of the Blue and Gray ever since. The cold earthen cellar floor, covered with chipped stone, was never cemented. One eldritch night long ago, we uncovered blood-soaked layers beneath the topsoil.
I am being pulled now, inexorably downward toward that sepulchral space. On the whitewashed wall flecks of plaster flicker in the dim light. The specks seem animate, intelligent. A man-size form appears slowly at first, then materializes and emerges from the dusty surface.
“Sit down, Art, on the last step.”
I look away. The ravages of the final stages of his disease are everywhere apparent. I don’t want to see him like this.
“It wouldn’t do for you to avoid me now, after all this, would it?”
“Just come upstairs with me, Keith. This place reeks of death.” The words are mine, but I am struck by their harsh tone.
“Sure, Art. You’re alive. You have the power of life. I’ll do it your way. But friends will be awake soon. I won’t let them see me like this.”
“I’m sorry, man,” I say. “ I’m sorry to be dragging you through this.”
“It’s all right… it was bound to happen, anyway, at some point. Might as well be now.”
He speaks these words across the table from me. I feel as if we have been sitting here for a long time.
“Down there in the cellar,” he says, “that was just a dream. But this is for real.”
“This is a dream too, Keith.”
“No. This is your dream. For me, it’s as real as it will ever be”

“What do you mean?” I ask.
His face is pale. He’s virtually bald. The scabs of sarcoma are there, just as they were the last time I laid eyes on him. I recall denying their significance–telling myself they were signs of a rash, or a skin disorder. A few months later on the telephone he disclosed to me that he had been diagnosed with HIV.
“We don’t have much time up here,” he is saying. “Don’t waste it with doubts. I’m telling you the truth, OK? I can’t explain it all. You’ll have time enough later to make sense of it for yourself.”

To describe this as conversation in the conventional meaning of the term–uttered word-chains, trains of conscious thought, alternating in turn–is futile. Ideas arise between us, sometimes in advance of a response, or in anticipation of succeeding thoughts–a concatenation, simultaneous, more like currents, waves, whirlpools, eddies, a river of images, reflections–as if we’re in a mirrored room inside of our minds, one mind. Sometimes I know the response I’ll receive before I speak–or think.
His appearance grows less ghostly as we continue. In the rose light of the breaking dawn he seems to be coming more and more to life and health.
“I feel like maybe we should just put this whole thing behind us, Keith.”
“Why bury it if it’s not dead, man?” He seems to know the exact phrase I kept myself from uttering. The instant before I said “… put this… behind..”” I was about to say, “bury it.” I chose not to say it that way, but his response exactly mirrored my repressed phrase.
He knows what I’m thinking before I say it. My thoughts shift in anticipation. Perceptions, mental images, ideas race soundless between us. It goes on like this–a jumble of insights, spilling out, filling the space around us, a unifying consciousness bumping up against the false duality of appearance.
“That’s right, Art. I am you. That’s what we’re doing here.”
As he says this, he is transformed in a split-second, into a youthful Francesco. The young man I must have known as a child, but can recall only from old photos. He wears the pin-striped suit he wore during his passage to America. I must have seen him in it during the first three or four years of my life but I can not remember it consciously.
He calls me by my name.
“Why are you doing this?” he asks.
My emotions are a dizzying cascade of anxiety, fear, humility, shame. I feel myself diminished, put in my place. I am child-like, in tears.

“No, Grandfather… I just miss you, that’s all…”

“The farm is gone,” he says. “I am an old man–happy where I am. Don’t make me come back here.”

In the next moment he ages… his face bearing the marks of decades.

Now there are three of us, for an instant, at the table. My eyes focus on each in turn, then in a blur, I see a single image.

“Is this what you want?” It comes both separately and simultaneously. Then they are one–one man. I am seeing myself as I know I am. I sit across from myself. I am facing my aged self. I am facing my death.

“Is there anything you still need to know?” I say. The thought echoes back and forth between the trinity, the duality, the singularity of me.

“I don’t know…ANYTHING!”

I’m screaming–alone at the table. My friends are stirring in the living room. It is dawn. My dream dissolves….

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Writing Keith

Keith_Letter_Tullio

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Keith,

That letter is the last one you ever wrote to me.
I saved it of, course. I know we talked a few times after that but it’s a material object and over the years it has carried much meaning for me. You sent it after we talked for the first time about you dying. A few days later, the letter arrived.

It was so weird reading it. I called you right up and said you don’t have anything to apologize for, man…

Anyway, by that time we acknowledged The Project had started the day we met. As the ‘80s ended we’d been doing it for nearly a decade. Somewhere in there we both got sidetracked. You became the most famous artist in the world and my life sort of fell apart for awhile. Then yours did too. Soon time was short. As it is now. As it always is. What’s new about that?

Now, decades later it’s the Vernal Equinox again. And, again, I’m having these dreams. Just last night, I dreamed we were at the farm. It was the same dream I had 20 years ago…

I know you know this stuff, Keith. It just seems like a long time here on my end. The Project is moving forward in the way it was always moving forward, defining itself in surprising and amazing ways.

More soon,

Tullio
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xKeith_work_at_HBromm82_ARTology

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The following excerpt is from Chapter 13 of Reading Lies Dreaming, by Tullio Francesco DeSantis


“Art, it’s Keith, man. Wake up.”
“I can’t Keith. If I wake up the dream will end.” “Right,” he says. “I mean, just get up and move around.”
This is a strange one. I know I’m drifting, back and forth, between states of awareness. I can just sense my bedroom–the low gray morning sunlight shuttered out behind layers of blinds and fabric, the soft scrape of the quilt brushing up against my ear, Hamlet breathing at the foot of the bed. I also know I’m drifting through a greenish mist.
“Wait, Keith. I don’t have it yet.” I’m hearing these thoughts as mine, responding to what I’m hearing.
“We’re at the farm, in Gettysburg, Art. Just look around. No one else is home. We can talk here.”
Yes. I can just make it out. Through the green atmosphere… it’s a cornfield. I’m standing in a cornfield that tops off at about six feet. I feel rough leaves brushing against my arms. I hear the buzz of crickets. I can feel the sun against my neck. The dry sienna dirt at my feet is dust piled up against the upward thrust of thousands of stalks. It must be late August. Flies from the nearby pasture dart about. A little white cornworm, struggles through a silky yellow cob top.
“I’m here, Keith. What now?” My thought-words are slow–single-file. I’m waiting for a response.
“I’m in the barn… up in the hayloft,” he says. I hear his words as soft whispers.
My thoughts are moving now, more purposefully: “This isn’t so easy, man. I’m drifting and it’s hard to get through. I’m coming. Just wait up, OK?”
The intentionality of my movement engenders confidence. I feel more able to navigate through this particular dreamworld. The sky is, cloudless, blue. I like it.
I pass the black-and-white spotted Holsteins. They’ve smashed the green pasture into a muddy brown mess. Flies are everywhere. I move quickly around back, up the little grassy mound to the barn. I notice the Hex signs I expect to be there are instead… radiant UFOs! Keith has painted a pair of little day-glow aliens, climbing down ladder-like beams that start from within the ships and end up forming the perimeter of a circular halo. Beneath the ships, there are wavy lines below a straight line, like water running under a bridge. The designs are tightly rounded. They retain the familiar appearance of the symbols painted on barns all over the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside.
I move the big blood-red barn door with a single smooth motion, fairly effortlessly. My dream body feels quite normal. I have a moment of complete lucidity. I’m completely aware of the dream nature of my experience, yet I am startled at how thoroughly substantial it appears.
Once inside however, it’s clear things will not be as anticipated. The atmosphere here is acrid, laden with ammonia, intense, hot. I am in a steamy cookout room at the mushroom farm. I extend my arm. It disappears before I can envision my hand. I can’t see three feet in front of me.
The rest is pure thinking. It’s as if a conversation is occurring inside my head. The energy of physical experience is transferred to conscious thought. I’m almost paralyzed here, taking little shallow breaths, nearly choking, but my mind is clear. I hear the words I will later record in my dreambook.
“Art,” he says. “This is it, man. You are difficult… very hard to get through to. There’s so much crap and nonsense in your head. This is taking much longer than it needs to, Art. Getting through to you has been hell, man… yeah, hell exactly.”
“I know, Keith.” The words, thoughts really, are instantaneous between us.
“So why do you think I had to come to the mushroom farm? ‘Cause you were stuck there, dreaming about that place for years. You connected your grandfather to all of this, because your dreams were stuck at the farm but it’s not the same thing. Your grandfather isn’t here, man. He’s not in this place, stuck here, like I am. He’s gone, man… free… out of here. He was clear about his living and his dying. You dreamed all the time about that farm though, Art. So I came there to reach you. Understand?”
“I know, Keith. I know it.”
“So, listen, man… it’s a lot easier getting through to other living people. You make everything so hard. What’s the point? I’m using other ways. You will receive the messages. You can take them however you want. You can struggle with it every step of the way or you can just open yourself up to it, man. It’s up to you.”
It went on like that. It seemed endless. I have pages and pages of notes. It was less a conversation than it was hearing a disembodied voice inside of my head–a thousand thoughts, linked up like a miles-long freight train. I stood in that place long enough to understand, to hear him. I did not see him.
When the alarm rang. I sat up and jotted down a few notes. But I felt as if I had a complete memory of the dream, which amounted to a continuous string of insights–ideas, rather than images. …*
First Image:
Letter from Keith Haring to Tullio Francesco DeSantis, 1989

Second Image:
Keith Haring, Installation, at Hal Bromm Gallery, NYC, 1981.
Photo by Tullio Francesco DeSantis

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What I’m thinking now…

 

My thoughts are focused upon the powerful urges underlying our ability to create worlds of experience, to inhabit them as if they are realities, to interpret their events as fraught with meaning, and to generate belief systems based on those interpretations – even when they are irrational, illogical, and potentially without meaning.

Can we be sure our experience of the so-called “real world” is of a different order than the experience of dreaming? After all, the brain’s very purpose is to execute some sort of reality construction from the myriad of impulses stimulating it every second. And that mental construction is, in a very palpable way, the “world” we inhabit.

We don’t experience a veritable meat-torrent of millions of unfiltered electro-chemical impulses even though that is the “stuff” of our senses. Instead, we experience a seamless sense of three-dimensional space and a dimension of continuous time. That sensation of unified experience is exactly what is being constructed – stitched together from discreet sensations – by the reality-structuring paradigms of the brain/mind system.

Besides constructing our sense of “reality,” our brain/mind is, at the same time, generating a belief system to accompany our experience. We have a psychological tendency to panic when we lose belief in the “reality” of our situation at any given time.

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As a result of a moment of simple awareness in my youth, I have chosen to make death my friend. This occurred quite naturally and unemotionally, as it became clear to me that upon dying I would be returning to the selfsame state of the universe from which I issued at the moment of my birth.

It is clear to me it is not necessary to understand the intricate interactions of every piece of dust and quantum of energy in the cosmos to comprehend that this mysterious membrane of space and time is the beginning, the end, and the very foundation of my being and my consciousness.

I find this all quite satisfying. And even though I am endlessly inspired by my study of both the material and the immaterial universe, I have never understood why questions of life and death have proved so problematic for humans over the millennia.

How is it that we come to appreciate one aspect of the all-wondrous universe and to dread another aspect of it to such a degree that we consider the two parts of the polarity to constitute a problem so severe that it gives rise to endless fear? And why does fear blind us to the expansive possibilities of global cooperation? Why do our fears cripple us from achieving utopian ideals?

It must be that as a result of the effort required to satisfy our basic physical requirements we become fixated on the material aspects of existence to the degree that we lose sight of the many more subtle connections between what we think of as our separate selves, others, and the universe at large.

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What is to be done? Fortunately, it seems we are somewhat automatically becoming more aware of the need to rectify these imbalances. As a result of natural and cultural evolution and their attendant supplementation of our ability to think more clearly about our predicament as human beings, we endeavor, even now, to bring the larger – yet more subtle – contexts of existence into sharper focus.

If you have not yet been touched by this great global awakening, take a moment to look for it. It is all around you – happening now. You are already a part of it. At the moment it looks just like…spring!
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Video: Carl Sagan, Pale Plue Dot

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Who do you think you are?

 

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Reasonably, we attempt what we think possible within the limits of our comprehension. The problem with this sort of reasonableness is what we think possible is conditioned by our self-image or self-definition. In other words, we progress only so far as we believe we can – given who we think we are. It turns out our greatest limits are those we impose upon ourselves.

Your self-image is the most crucial component of how you actualize yourself throughout life. But most – if not all – of your self-image is a socio-cultural construct.

All our lives we have been told in very direct, indirect, and subtle ways who exactly we are. We experience ourselves defined within specific families, tribes, religions, ethnic groups, cultures, geographical locations, and political entities. These realities form components of identity – but they are in no deep way “who we are.”

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We are ancient. The very material of our bodies was created deep in the interior of stars – supernovae exploded billions of years ago. Interstellar material coalesced into the proto-planetary disc of the Solar System. Assembled over millennia with the evolutionary intelligence of DNA, the energetic elements of stardust that formed the Earth moved through generations of earthly creatures and still maintain the automatic self-regulating processes of our bodies. Myriad forms of intelligence pulsate within us. Our neurological intelligence shines like a beacon above the evolutionary heights and connects us consciously to the entire cosmic vista. When we gaze into the universe, in a very real way we see ourselves.

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As preparatory to creative work, I urge artists and students to consider themselves within this cosmic context. Typically, we walk through our lives defining ourselves by mundane measurements of identity – wealth, status, power. By considering the miraculous processes within us and pondering the infinite cosmos surrounding us we feel our connection to all the power and intelligence of the universe. In these moments our identity expands to fill the entirety of space and time and we experience unlimited potential.

This is who you are!
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Video: Deepak Chopra, The Wonder of You

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