My Elephant and I

July 31, 2010

For the past half decade, I have lined my room with the same general collection of artwork. From room to room and state to state, I have taped and untaped, glued and unglued, hammered and unhammered, my tiny valuables with great deliberation. Recently, while looking at a half a dozen paint-chipped hostel walls, I have often been reminded of the absence of my little treasures. One of these items is a sophomore dorm room classic that no nine to five has been able to retire. The skeletal creatures of Salvador Dali’s Les Elephants have pitter-pattered their way across one of every four walls that I have ever claimed. Under a blood-red sky, two ant-sized humans walk towards each other. Behind both figures stands a stilt-legged elephant carrying a heavy and intricate object on its back. In line with Dali’s theme of general creepiness, Les Elephants provides the framework for a bone-chilling nightmare. Yet, time and again, this bed-side painting brings me indescribable comfort.

My interpretation would probably make the wax on Dali’s mustache melt with disgust, but I see no reason to be careful with a man who once claimed immortality. To me, Les Elephants presents two people in some form of a relationship – romantic or familial, fleeting or fixed, friends or strangers – I see two people’s worlds in the process of overlapping. When I have trouble sleeping, I typically create different scenarios for these malleable folks.

For simplicity sake, I’ll stick with my most common thought: these two people are lovers meeting for the first time. At present, they are so captivated that they see only each other. The stick thin legs of their elephants blend into the background and patiently tower above the lovers unnoticed. With every greeting, however, the elephants become increasingly visible, and the objects on the elephants’ backs become infinitely more important. These spindly elephants, you see, carry the weight of meaning. Their legs may appear rickety, but they are solid enough to carry the infinite experiences that shape each individual’s understanding of their world.

Imagine, like I do, that every person spends their life building a tangible dictionary of personal definitions. Flip through the pages and find the various memories, associations, and experiences that create an individual’s response to and experience with every imaginable concept, feeling, and perspective. Everything from ‘love’ to ‘pickles’ can be found here.

Fictional example:

Love (n; v): sitting on grandma’s lap; kissing in the backyard hammock; a pain in my chest; the cold nose of my first dog; crying at the airport; fear of broken trust; hidden freckles behind her ear; loss of self; discovery of self; sunrise over Lake Michigan; the smell of sweat; something to be wary of; something to be hopeful for.

Pickles (n): the last food I ate before I got food poisoning in eighth grade; repulsive; sign of bad things to come.

With time, the legs of Dali’s elephants begin to succumb to the weight of meaning, and Dali’s lovers are within reach of their dictionaries of meaning. They share it. They laugh and cry; they develop jealousy and resolve misunderstandings; they remember and reassess. Most importantly, they understand that where there is love, there is pain; and where there are pickles, there is disgust. They become aware of the split second reactions and subconscious layers of complex associations that are contained within a word, emotion, or object. They come to know why their lover smiles at the sight of wheat fields and insists on going on hikes after big arguments. They understand themselves again, and they are reminded that meaning is constantly changing and growing.

That is the reason why my poster has frayed edges. It reminds me to pay a visit to my homely looking elephant and the striking meaning that she carries. It reminds me of the need to share my nouns, verbs, and adjectives through relationships and reflection.

So, in tribute to the poster that is rolled tightly in a closet in Oregon, I will share with you the meaning that I have created over the course of the past three weeks in Spain:

Madrid (n): worthwhile city disguised as a concrete jungle; two hour naps in parks with rowboats and hidden museums; the city that disproved my distaste for green olives; my location when a remarkable man, my grandpa, passed away; A World by Angeles Santos Torroella; Jeremy’s overzealous attempts to speak Spanish (“hello, friends!”); touching the home turf of Real Madrid; choking down Spanish sherry; fruit markets with juicy nectarines; witnessing Jeremy unintentionally flash an unknown hostel-mate; the beginnings of a Chaco tan.

Barcelona (n): hub of creativity; standing in front of the stained glass and redwood-sized columns in La Sagrada Familia; the paradox of my very first 2 Euro peep show; a carton of white wine, a bench with my brother, and a laser light fountain show; overlooking the city in Park Güell; accidentally entering a “man only” cinema; fresh juice, the eyeballs of dead pigs, and lasagna orgasmica at Mercat de la Boqueria; walking until my feet couldn’t; jugs of sangria on Las Ramblas; mistaking Euros for Pesos and blushing to maximum degrees; murals painted on the pull-down gates of shop windows; hammer pants at a flea market; happily and pathetically choosing the chocolate museum over Picasso; remnants of the 1992 Olympics; my favorite Spanish city.

Sitges (n): a sun-filled day trip; gay men bobbing in blue water; successful use of sunscreen; twitching my tired body to sleep; looking out the train window.

Granada (n): slowing down; understanding siestas; first taste of gazpacho; wishing my dad a happy birthday via a laptop screen; torn between exhaustion and amazement at the Alhambra; lounging on alley steps at night; smiling my way through a flamenco show starring Deuce Bigalow’s doppleganger; falafel and doner kebabs; international hippies with misguided advice, mangy dogs, and at least forty forties; unappreciated street art; hookah and cervezas on the top of a side street; furnace-like weather; a disappearing hotel owner; sleeping on the terrace.

Seville (n): wincing at a bull-fight; happening upon an enormous “Catholic” street festival; attempting to find ‘Fun Club’ with multiple strangers from multiple countries; battling an intimidating plate of spinach and garbanzo beans; second try at flamenco; tinto at noon; the many tiles at Plaza España.

Cordoba (n): the battle of architecture at a former mosque and current cathedral; one of Europe’s three remaining synagogues; Jeremy’s twisted ankle; exploring the Jewish quarter; happy and light.

I’m happy to report that my little dictionary is fattening by the minute as I enter new cities and meet new people. I’ve been calling France home since Wednesday and have the pleasure of doing so for the next couple of weeks as I bounce from a château in Clefmont to a couch in Paris to a farm in Le Pompidou. My definition of happiness has never been more full.


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