Hi hi, m’pals,
I’m trying to think where to start with what I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks and I’ve decided to begin with the fact that, back when I was in college, I knew three people who had been struck by lightning. I knew this about them because the strips on their student IDs would get demagnetized and so they’d have to be rung into the dining hall by a separate process than the regular scanning. This sometimes meant that they ended up in a little clump by the woman at the register. Amherst was a small college—maybe 1600 students then. Knowing three people there who had been struck by lightning now seems like a high ratio (I haven’t met anyone since who has been), but I remember absorbing it at the time as of a piece with all the other data I was then taking in about what the world was like outside where I’d grown up in Wisconsin: “Perms are not as fashionable as you think they are, and the world is apparently teeming with people who have been struck by lightning and lived to tell about it.”
One, my friend Herschel, had been struck on a baseball field in Connecticut. (I think that’s right.) The second, having sex with his girlfriend in a desert in New Mexico. (She had lived too, and I assume was walking around a parallel campus with her own demagnetized student ID.) And the third was my friend Karen, who had been having breakfast with her grandmother in front of a big window of their home in Jamaica, which overlooked the ocean. She had been eating an orange, and the lightning had come in and struck her there.
The day of the inauguration I was in New York and knowing the afternoon was not going to be a good afternoon no matter what I did, instead of trying to see friends I took myself to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit Leonora Carrington’s self-portrait. Leonora Carrington is an artist who means a great deal to me, and I’d never gotten to see one of her paintings in person before. To go see one seemed like the best thing to do on a sad, oppressive, grey, no-good day.
It was my first time at the museum. I started off purposefully, got lost right away, and returned to the front desk for help. The woman who helped me was briskly knowledgeable, and somehow we ended up murmuring to each other about the inauguration. She said, “I didn’t know if I’d even be able to speak today,” but then she’d gotten to work and it had been okay, better, she realized, than being at home watching the news. Everyone was chattering around us—tourists like me, gawking around. There was a way in which the world seemed just the same as it always had, and then a way that the fact of the museum itself—as this ginormous palace of a building where you, a fairly ordinary if lucky sort of mortal, got to walk around hallway after hallway of works of art and treasures—felt like a newly fragile enterprise. I am almost certain the woman shared that feeling too, even if we both would have thought it overly melodramatic to say so out loud: “My name is Ozymandias, and also I’m wondering where the restrooms are?”
She ended up drawing a mass of “x’s” all over my map—first where I’d find the gallery with Carrington’s painting and then a bunch of other places I might like to see while I was there. X, X, X, X, X … then X, X, X, X, X and oh I think you would enjoy X, X, X.
And when, somewhere during our conversation, I mentioned From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and how much I loved it and how it made me extra glad to finally be visiting the museum, she warned me, with a gentleness I found both funny and kind, that the fountain where Claudia and her brother Jamie go fishing for change wasn’t there anymore and that a couple other things mentioned in the book had moved too.
I’ve written in this letter before about Leonora Carrington (and I wrote about her life here). She was a writer as well as a painter: a collection of her stories and her memoir have recently been reissued, and her novel The Hearing Trumpet is one of my favorites. I’ve had a couple dreams about her over the years. In one of them, she was with Sappho, Emily D., and a bunch of other artists who I have categorized in some part of my brain as “very high up in the guild,” and they were all going in and out of a high vaulted hall. In the center of the hall was a pen—a sort of terrarium—with an assortment of animals living in it, I remember there were a few kittens there, some outlandish birds, and larger creatures too, like alligators and panthers, all sauntering and gamboling and fluttering around in rough Edenic harmony (the kittens, I remember noticing, were not in peril, though they were small and giddy). In the dream I had a few snails and worms and mollusk-y things with me—I was carrying them in the bottom of my shirt, like if you’d been out picking berries and didn’t have any other way of carrying them. The women invited me to add what I’d brought to the pen and I said, “I can’t, mine are too awful,” and showed the women how measly and gross my creatures were (snails, worms!), and they said, “Go on anyway,” and so I went ahead and emptied my shirt full of animals into the pen.
In another: Leonora Carrington and I were sitting in front of a big bay window with the sea in front of us, splitting an orange. The dream ended as lightning came in and hit me.
That day, I went to many of the “x’s” the woman at the desk had marked, and over the course of it, I tramped back to look at Carrington’s self-portrait three or four more times. I couldn’t describe what I was feeling whenever I was standing in front of it. I’d been expecting to feel something big and purpose giving, as I had in the two dreams about her, and it didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel momentous. I was conscious the entire time that my feet hurt from walking and that my shoulder ached because I had too much crammed in my purse. And still I felt compelled to keep returning there, from whatever corner of the museum I’d been to before I could start off somewhere new and then once more before I could leave. When I did, it was raining hard, and I accidentally climbed into someone else’s Uber outside the museum.
Why am I telling you this? These are the memories and thoughts that have been rolling around my head the past month, with every friend’s FB status of, “Is anyone else having trouble writing right now?” Sometimes, the answer for me has been Yes yes yes yes. (“How can I possibly write when I’m so busy refreshing Twitter and feeling full of impotent rage and fury and sadness?”) But other times this summer, sometimes for weeks at a time, I’ve been able to create little pockets each day where I’m writing and moving along in my book, and those pockets of immersion have felt needful and good. During them, I’ve seen it—“it” being the act of writing, of continuing one’s weird quixotic creative pursuit, of marking down the “x” where you’ve stood—as both necessary for my own well being as well as something that’s important to add into the world right now. Even if small, even if it feels insignificant or fragmented, even if you don’t know what’s ever going to come of it.
I love Anne Carson’s translations of the fragments of Sappho and the way the missing pieces of the poems take on all the weight of beauty as you read through them:
never more damaging O Eirana have I encountered you
] and know this
]I shall love
having come from heaven wrapped in a purple cloak
One last thing: I went to see the eclipse the other week. The path of totality crossed in Brevard, about forty minutes from Asheville. I wasn’t going to go at first—I could see about 99% eclipse from my own backyard so why deal with traffic to get an extra 1%, etc. etc.—but the writer Sulagna Misra was going to be in town from the Bay Area, and she got in touch, and it began to sound like fun that she join up with my husband Lowell and me and we make a day of it. (Aside: earlier in the year, I’d also edited this wonderful piece by Lucas Reilly about eclipse chasers and all the lengths they travel to catch eclipses, and it seemed increasingly lame after being in on that to not chase an eclipse that would be… located a short drive from my house.) So we went! Early in the morning, Lowell and I picked up Sulagna from a biscuit place in West Asheville and drove to Brevard and stationed ourselves on a bit of lawn at a college there, under the shade of a big tree and facing a stream. It was still early—there were hours to wait yet. We ate sandwiches; we drank soda. Lowell and I had brought our dog, Carmella, and Lowell walked around with her while Sulagna and I talked. Carmella did a lot of dipping in and out of the stream as the day went on, so that every time she returned to where we were sitting she was dirtier and wetter and grinning more and more. Different people came and went around us, including one man who looked uncannily around the eyes like Simon Callow circa Reverend Beebe in Room With A View, except he was in overalls (which was an enjoyable outfit to picture the Rev. Beebe as wearing). Sulagna, who was wearing an iris-y dress with stars and moons and gold sneakers—like “fancy French teens” wear—brought out a bag of pens to draw in a little sketchbook she had, getting down all the different scenes of what was happening.
Finally, it drew time.
It got dark, and then darker still. Lights went on in the dorm across from us. A wind seemed to stir up. All along the banks of the stream, people began whooping and calling. We all stood staring up as the sun disappeared. It was eerie and beautiful, that inky darkness with the blaze of light around it, and later, as we were gathering up our things from under the tree, Sulagna said, “I feel as if my heart is giving off sparks.”
So sending this letter off this afternoon, hoping if these days feel dark to you (as they often do to me), there are also sparks and blazes and fragments of light to stay with you.
Until next time,
] whatever you
] I shall love,
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