“Letters . . . art’s sweet hooky.”– Lorrie Moore
“I admire your guts in the midst of strangers.”– Dawn Powell
When you make a painting or a drawing do you address it to someone, as you would a letter? And if you do, what does it mean, to “address?” There is the verb: the shout, murmur, scrawl, the beseeching wail and the twirling in circles trying to see what the paint won’t reveal. And there is the noun: the housing. That is where the Muse lives, if you believe in such things.
The origin of the word “address” is from the French, adrecier, “To go straight toward, straighten, set right, point, direct.” Yet the relationship with a Muse is anything but a straight line. It is an unpredictable courtship, a not-so-fair trade of creative work in return for the recognition of meaning. I have always needed a muse, and it has felt sometimes like a weakness, a quirk of sentiment that has gone out of fashion. Men get them, of course, but – women? They are supposed to be the Muse, right? Women are expected to get their ideas immaculately, from thin air, without the whispers of naked sylphs leaning in to their ears. Either that or they fall under the spell of Pygmalian, shaped and molded by the all-powerful man, and spend the rest of their lives giving him the credit.
You might think these are parodies, ancient points of view long discarded. But just leaf back a few years, to the 1950’s, or even, let’s get specific, to 1974. Until that year, only 44 years ago, a woman could not get her own credit card without her husband’s signature. That woman would be my mother, who confronted this reality in her diary as she considered divorce in the 1970’s.
This month I have been helping my mother sort her historical archives and personal papers. It has been a dizzying trip back in time, excavating the corners of her 1910 pink Victorian. Stacked under the stair of a closet we found a dozen forgotten boxes of history. As we opened them we discovered, interspersed with manifestos and personal letters, early issues of MS, Lilith, Off Our Backs, and Pandora, among countless quarterlies and pamphlets about every imaginable movement for social justice. My mother has been a life-long writer and journalist, and a passionate advocate for feminism. In her prolific archives I can trace the path from compliant goddess to bohemian to a woman on the front lines of women’s liberation. I can see how raw and how recent the past is. I can see how hard-won and personal the journey has been, and how important the act of writing letters and journals is in living history and being conscious that you are living it.
These boxes of paper have dusty, pungent physical presence. The smell of old and well-traveled paper is like no other. If you throw out a remnant of this vintage without looking, it will come looking for you later and crumple you in its fist. So you look.
This is how I have discovered that my mother kept all the letters I wrote to her, in every kind of handwriting. There are scenes in these letters I have no memory of, could not have imagined today if I tried. I wrote with complete trust and abandon and revelry, scrutinizing each detail of experience. Watching a Wyoming sunset from the bubble car of the Amtrack Empire Builder. The backyards of Baltimore, the oily rivers of Delaware, the shock of East Coast brick tenements. Dining cars, and white napkins. The first experience of humidity. I was 16 and running away from home to a Virginia commune. I told her (almost) all about it. In all the early letters there is a vividness of experience that jolts me into another time. It’s as though Ken Nordine is there whispering over my shoulder, describing the colors and filling in the background with a snare drum. (If you have never done so, I suggest lying on the floor at sunset and listening to one of his pieces, perhaps “The Color of the Air,” or “Olive,” while not checking your phone.) Did I say whisper?
In unfolding each letter and reading these words addressed to my mother I am jolted with something else besides a sense of history. It’s the Feminine: She was my Muse. Without my asking, although our relationship was not easy, I knew I could simply pour out what I saw and felt and she would listen. There was no question of asking for permission, it was a given. And that is the essence of the Muse, isn’t it? Finding that person, or idea, or subject that says I’m listening to you. I’m taking notes in the margins so I can write back. If you are painting a plum blossom in spring with an uncooperative sumi brush the flower looks back and sends perfume, without reproach, urging you to do another thousand petals until you get it right. If you are learning to craft a sentence, or a particular letter of the alphabet, or how to carve an elephant out of soap, you know someone is watching with only the best intentions, and helping invisibly to guide your hand.
In the email age it is easy to think less is better, and nothing is even more. The hard drive groans with too much information and with one click you can delete a life, a relationship, tell yourself you feel lighter now. We are urged to feel airy, free, unencumbered, and I understand the appeal. Who wouldn’t want an inbox shimmering blank?
And yet, stickiness. Encumbrance, expectation, re-lationship and re-membering is what art is made of. It doesn’t come from nothing, it comes from something. Memories are as much the now as they are the past, and that’s where story lives.
“It is so painful to be on the dark side of the hill at dusk, when steam on the glass frosts the pink fire behind branches, branches like the lead of church windows; and as in church, you cannot see beyond the altar until you step outside the door of the building itself. There the pink fire reflected all over your hands, and car windows, on hills full with forest, calico clouds, you hold onto an open note for as long as it plays.” –(1974, the Palouse, Stranger Creek)
Who is your Muse? How are you sorting your life for the new year? What do you hold onto and what do you let go? Wishing you divine and most human inspiration in 2019.