In early spring, I take a pitchfork to the long-buried borders, unpeeling packet after packet of dead maple leaves. The snowdrops underneath are a startled, resentful chartreuse. I scrub moss off the barn doors with dish soap and hearty amounts of borax and wage sisyphean battles on the den carpet’s behalf against the profligate mud borne and reborn of carelessly traipsing small shoes. I tidy and ravage, picking the hollow of skin between my neck and chin, wattling it, the violin hollow. Or the nape of my neck or the base or a shoulder blade. I buy a stress-reliever, a soft foam mushroom I am to squeeze in place of picking, but mostly the mushroom is not around and my skin is always around.
I impose discipline; still my hands, spend small fortunes on lambasting body washes and circular patches. The skin heals. And then my fingers creep back.
I had thought this habit a new one, born of nearly three years of mostly working from home. But no; it is episodic, intermittently dormant. No, it is dormant, intermittently episodic.
There was a moment – ninth grade shop class, sunken cement floor, butter yellow walls, the windows a contiguous line just below the eaves, heavy scent of woodstain, of turpentine and sawdust, and the shop teacher saying, of a classmate: J has beautiful skin.
I do not remember the circumstances that occasioned his remark – perhaps he had been telling us about sanding, or staining; why some wood looked better with a dark stain or a cherry or plain varnish. The remark was said not as compliment but as fact, an observation contextually useful to the work at hand. But that he had observed it, this teacher who seemed to spend most of his time looking down, at the pieces of wood, the angle of the sandpaper against the grain, the machines those of us who’d progressed past hand tools were allowed to use – that itself was noteworthy. It was surprising. I was surprised, and I looked at my classmate more closely. J’s skin was luminous, unblemished; I would not have noticed this had the teacher not told us so. J: quiet, plays ice hockey, best friends with the boy who wears shorts year-round, became J: Beautiful skin.
Fast forward a few years and J was no longer quiet, no longer played hockey, had fallen in with the boys who held or dealt or were rumored to – who knows; I wasn’t close enough to know – had pared down, shot up, was always tripping over the jeans he belted just above the hem of his boxers – but his skin was still luminous. He died just over seven years ago; I passed by his plot in the town cemetery a few weeks back and it was that shop teacher’s remark I first remembered. The kindness in pointing out unobvious beauty.
At night, when it is my turn to put the kids down, I deposit Ottie first and then lie beside Irving, pretending to sleep while his thin arms wind around mine and his hands furrow in my hair and ears and neck. Oh mummy, he says, pausing at my nape. That your mole?
I begin to agree, then change my mind.
I pick at my skin sometimes, I say. I should probably stop.
It’s so cute, he says.
I come home from New York and everything is blossoming, the papery violets and the maples and the delicate, shivery pink magnolias. Bluet April light streams through the windows in that fledgling spring way. It warms my back as I push the stroller, Perry beside me with fifi the racoon tucked into his pajama top so just her head pops out. Perry brings me a milkweed pod, the silk unraveled, burred in places with playground dirt. “Texture,” he calls it. Bears leave it in search of honey. Smell, he says.
On morning, I stumble upon this wondrous and lyrical blog by a Canadian photo-essayist. (Is “classical blog” an oxymoron? At this point, I think not; this is one of them.) Dappled, barefoot screened porch summers give way to candlelit winters in black and white; the summer light is hazy, dreamy; tables are strewn with near-empty wine glasses, elbows, flowers; babies, marveled over, become children, marveling at the snowblack, flying down boat ramps, crouching over lake flotsom. The passages inbetween are ruminative, with unexpected verbs and challenging references. An exploration of children and their indiscriminate love of objects (yes, yes) quotes Sara Ahmed: “Love can be bestowed on an ordinary thing.”
Ahmed is a feminist scholar and her exegesis of will and willfulness, its oppositional + rebellious force draw heavily from George Elliot, whose characters shattered jugs and pots and other dear, daily objects at moments of moral or physical diversion.
“She refers to George Elliot’s story about a boy and his clay pot. Elliot calls the pot the boy’s companion — it lends its usefulness to the boy, it expresses a desire to help him. I am excited by these verbs and the idea that between people and objects exists a real relationship.
I too am excited. Half recalling Judith Butler and her table and my own freshman balkings; wondering if I’ve evolved now, if I’ve seen the light, I go and read the source material. It is pushing nine at night on a train wheezing by the outskirts of New London, and Silas Marner has the feel of fable. In other words, I struggle to get to the boy and his pot; I quickly resort to keyword searches: pot, companion. The boy, Silas, is closing on forty. I read on:
“His life had reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end towards which the functions tended…”
“…Strangely Marner’s face and figure shrank and bent themselves into a constant mechanical relation to the objects of his life, so that he produced the same sort of impression as a handle or a crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart.
“The prominent eyes that used to look trusting and dreamy, now looked as if they had been made to see only one kind of thing that was very small, like tiny grain, for which they hunted everywhere…”
I read it again.
“Strangely Marner’s face and figure shrank and bent themselves into a constant mechanical relation to the objects of his life, so that he produced the same sort of impression as a handle or a crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart.”
The next passage is about the pot companion, but I read and reread it and at first I am dismissive. Yes, Silas has affection for this earthenware pot, which carries his daily water for a dozen years. It breaks; he keeps the bits, sticks them back together; “propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial.” But his m.o. Is not this pot, which warrants but a paragraph and a brief rejoinder, later on, but another, the iron pot that holds and then overflows with his slowly accumulating lucre.
The relationship between boy and pot – this fastidious and simple joy – complicates, because the boy is a man who hoards in place of living.
Then again, the boy who is a man who hoards loves this earthenware pot for its usefulness and self imprimateur: this is the pot that enables him to live, and bears testament to his life.
There is risk in loving these daily objects. Their very dailiness ensures that they will break, fray, fade. Then again, there is risk in love.
And then I reverse course: the earthenware pot may not have loved Silas, but it knew him; for twelve years, it knew him better than anyone or thing in the world. He became his loom but his pot became him. I am now moved, not by man:object companionship but by this withered world in which an object is this man’s only measure.
And glad I have come to this circuitous conclusion and not at all sure what it bears upon P and his texture and fifi the racoon.
In New York, I get up early and walk around SoHo listening to an Articles of Interest episode on pointe shoes. Going en pointe is like letting a piano crash on your toes, a ballerina tells the host.
The descriptions of what it is like to actually wear these shoes and to dance in them daily are so viscerally brutal that my entire body clenches; my own toes in their sensible covers retract into their sockets.
Traditionale pointe shoes are made of: Leather, satin, paper, glue. No shock absorbers. Unlike running shoes or ski boots or goodness, swim suits, there’s been no great technological leap forward; any incremental improvements to comfort and durability and support are mostly derided as cheating, as not the same.
There has to be a better way, the host notes. The shoes disintegrate in a matter of days – the original fast fashion, only they cost $102 a pair. There has to be a better way, but there isn’t, because to us, the dazzled spectators, the ballerines are effortless.
Ballet shoes came from fashion; originally, they were worn in reaction to the french revolution. Vive le peuple; ravage les orteils. I had no idea, having made it through all of two years of ballet.
The ballerinas at the Harlem Dance Company paint their pointe shoes using paints the wardrobe master custom mixes to match their skin tones. Some use tooth brushes, others little sponges. Smoosh, smoosh. With this added step, breaking in a new pair of pointe shoes takes thirty, forty, forty five minutes. I am equal parts dismayed and beguiled by this bit of ritual arcana. I’m sure the girls would prefer having shoes that don’t need to be painted, shoes they can just take out of the box and wear, the wardrobe master says, though one of the dancers interviewed thinks it is good to know how to paint the shoes, good to have the option.
Until 2017, pointe shoes only came in pink and white. They are supposed to be extensions of the leg. They are supposed to be extensions of the leg and so dancers of color painted them the colors of their skin and danced in dyed tights. Some of them did not, do not even have that option – in many companies, the director preferred the tights and shoes to be uniform, rather than the line.
For easter, we dye bleached brown eggs. You let the boiled eggs soak in white vinegar and then you rub the eggs and the melanin comes off, in little miasmic granules. It is an uneasy process; this whitening. I had not before known that brown eggs were white eggs (or tan eggs, anyhow) underneath. Tan eggs in organic vegetable dyes look not very different from brown eggs, but with vague undertones of mauve, carrot, marigold.
One night, lachrymose over my desert brain, its lack of creative spark in contrast to nature’s reawakening, I start The Seas by Sam Hunt. The story is perfect, with these openings for magical realism that I sense will become the world as the book progresses. I am curious about the author, and find, on lithub, an accounting of some of her sources of visual inspiration. The first image is of Pierpont Morgan’s scarlet study. The image is hyper-saturated; overwhelmingly red and womb-like; the tall silk damask walls are uninterrupted by windows or any trace of exit apart from the fireplace; the furniture is velvet, the low, gleaming rosewood bookcases with their renaissance illuminations, a christ-child bust beat the same enveloping drum. Sam writes that as a child, she dreamt about a tunnel – “a series of small scarlet, velvety rooms, like a birth canal in reverse” that she knew ended in a mystery she was content to preserve. Decades later, she sees “Mr. Morgan’s blood-red library” and eureka: mystery solved.
I do not like this room, with its Beetlejuice red, all that rich fabric, the distant objects – who could study in such a place? But the image is misleading; there are windows on the walls beyond the photograph, large windows inset with stained glass panels and the ceiling is coffered in intriciately carved wood; it is not so overwhelmingly red in real life. Though also: not nearly so spellbinding. Was it the image that Sam Hunt saw, or the room itself?
Later in the piece, Sam writes of her great, great aunt Ella, who was institutionalized in Independence (ha) at the age of 21 after boarding a moving freight train bound for Council Bluffs.
“Her admission interview asks ‘On what subject or in what way is derangement now manifested?’ And the answer:
‘She wants to travel and will run away when not constantly watched.’”
So did she, I wonder. Or was she like Maria Wyeth’s mother, Francine, of Wells Springs (population 0, 100, now 0 again), “yearning suffuses our lives like nerve gas, cross the ocean on a silver plane, she would croon to herself, and mean it, see the jungle when it’s wet with rain.”
Conifers surrounded the house my father rented after separating from my mother; the light was abundant but subterranean. A mint-green cape, the furniture inside was hasty, pastel and white and there wasn’t much of it, there wasn’t much of the house itself; it had that just-got-the-keys feel, like it was meant to be empty always, and thus full of light. With furniture, it would have been weak, sickly, but since it had the run of the place…
The “Apple Street house,” we called it. Later, after my father had moved out and another separated father moved in, we called it “the divorced dad house.”
About Grace’s Henry Winkler starts writing his book of water twenty five years after the rainstorm that drowned – or so he suspects – his daughter. Is still writing it when he departs the Grenadines with renewed hope that the long harbored suspicion is wrongheaded. Burns the notes – all these notes and legends and myths that have yet to coalesce around some organizing principle – when the last Grace Winkler on his list of nine is not his Grace Winkler (he thinks).
It is never too late to start something, a Grenadian researcher of coral reefs tells him.
Anthony Doerr loves lists so that I start to skip or at any rate gloss over them, but then again, lists are the beginner’s organizing principle.
On the subway, I finally get around to a tab I’ve had open for months, a 2009 New Yorker profile of two female free divers, Great Britain’s Sarah Campbell and the Russian Natalia Molchanova, each hoping to make it to 100 meters below the surface, the world record. Molchanova says: “What you do to start learning is you focus on the edges, not the center of things, as if you were looking at a screen.” I am standing on the subway with my husband’s dufflebag wedged between my feet and I try it out. A clutch of children chattering in excited spanish, peering out the subway windows. Flash of poles. The skritch of a nail file.
That night, after reading Julian, the Mermaid to the kids, I tie a paréo and the narrow end of a blue pashmina around Perry and Irv and fantail the ends. There. Mermaids. For Ottie, only an old swaddle, but she doesn’t know; she doesn’t yet know what a mermaid is.
There were stretches of Play It As It Lays when the unbroken darkness + limpid destruction got to me – chapter after chapter of blunt + removed coolness and cruelty – but the book is also about the instinct for preservation. This is a surprise – Maria knowing about snake bite care and canning (knowing anything at all), and then it’s not; she’s been demonstrating this instinct throughout the book; what can seem like recklessness (ie driving the L.A. freeway for the beauty of the 4 lane change) is, in the life or death sense, the opposite. So I liked that. The counterpoint that turns out to be the point.
In the morning, I will swim and I will practice holding my breath, like Molchanova. Not for 8 minutes, as she has done. The length of the pool – 25 yards.
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