I’ve been trying to remember a former spiritual director’s surname. And I’ve been looking for the designer of a kind of settee with an angular metal frame and quilted fabric lining. The spiritual director was gawjeous, looking like and even sharing a birthday with the actor Don Johnson. The settee, though of modern design, has a gothic-castle kind of appeal — spare, stern, yet protective and welcoming. In both cases, it’s the contrasts, and how the tense results would play out in real life, that interest me.
From time to time I devise ingenious Google searches, to satisfy a need to resolve these little quests. I’ve had no luck, so far.
The spiritual director’s father was a bishop, the son was a Jr. or III maybe, but I’m not sure, and I remember his given name, along with a betrayal, a thing men do that I’ve never known a woman to do: conflating some person with you, then pasting the composite puppet into the space between you, as if that fantastical assemblage is real, as if it’s you. Does he still do this? Has he risen in the church, or did he bring himself back down to earth?
The settee was in a New York Public Library photo. Several settees, actually, in a beautiful children’s reading room. I wrote to the NYPL. They didn’t reply, and now I can’t find the original photo. The settees are maybe actually sofas, loveseats, or mega-chairs. They look perfect for reading without falling asleep, as their angularity wouldn’t support a snooze. (Just what I need, to be able read without falling asleep!) Perfect, I think, for reading to children, too: parent and child, curled up in the same space, communing over words and pictures, in a public area with a sense of privacy, or at home without feeling smothered.
In the space of looking for lost items, I was thinking of a mid-summer, or thereabouts, at an extended family cookout. After eating, I was lying on my back, the lawn prickling my skin, bits of roasted corn in my teeth, my nostrils flaring as smells of grass and dirt and flowers swirled and changed in the cooling air, a touch of dew coalesced on forehead, nose, and shoulders, and the Earth supporting me joined the sky arching overhead, their congress achieved in the luminous heure bleue.
How to paint such times? Words, lists, can stamp bits of an experience into a conscious place, where, shared, maybe others can understand a little. But how to share the experience of a moment from the inside?
How can I paint the little things, like the faint dusting of dirt that coated my back as my sweat dried? How can I paint swarms of mosquitoes and gnats all around, punctuated by occasional moths and flies, tiny potential dangers every one, none of them touching me even so because somehow I’m as much of them as they are of me, I’m not their prey, we are not enemies. Neither do I kill them or brush them away, nor do they bite, land upon me, or get into my eyes. A joint peace, with them dancing and looking for food, and me tired, replete.
How to paint something sensual, without observing it directly, without looking down upon it? How to paint the one who lay beside me, who was there, and then was gone, his wholeness faded into the dark, as if he, too, was made of sweet, blue light? I don’t know if he got up, or fell asleep, or if the darkness widened the space between us. But something of him stayed even so, a knowledge of the space he used up, and his weight, upon the earth. Later, when it was fully dark, he was there again,
We toasted marshmallows. We used branches — not skewers, mind: branches, strong and knotty enough to hold a semi-molten marshmallow for a minute without its sliding off, yet green, delicate and whippy enough not to damage the candy as it was being impaled, or burst into flames during the toasting. We set the treats alight over embers, then turned them so the flames blistered them dark gold without actually charring them.
I can see how I could illustrate this — the scene, the actions. The feeling of the experience is what I don’t know how to share. How do I paint the process of evaluating young ash tree branches in the almost-darkness, the sweet smell of their leaves and the slight stickiness of their bark, or what it’s like waiting until the night is absolutely dark, or the immediacy of the risks, danger, and the fun of running them, of flames to fingers and food?
I see the work of artists I love, who use gesture and color to tell me how the air feels to them, or how they experience an animal’s shape with all their inner self. Their shorthand languages, one to each artist, combining common symbols and unique motions, tell me their joys.
That’s what I need to learn how to do. To make something of myself, for myself. Looking for a former spiritual director’s presence, to see if he’s still into betrayals and how it affects me, if he is, if he’s not. Looking for the right settee to read in, to share from, to offer, to bridge my private and hospitable natures. Looking for unique movements, and selecting common symbols and colors, so I can put the sweet light in front of you, so maybe you can see it too.