On the Right Book at the Right Time
Last winter, when I was in Seattle for a conference, I spent time in one of the great indie bookstores. Whenever I’m in a city I don’t know well – and if I’m in a semi-balanced state of being – I remind myself that I become grounded and less weirded-out by travel if I a) take a yoga class, and b) seek out a special bookstore. So I was wandering the aisles of the bookstore when a particular book caught my eye. It was written by Anne Truitt, a sculptor with whom I had crossed paths when both of us were at Yaddo in the mid-1990’s. At the time, I was young – though I didn’t believe myself to be – and I was writing the second chapter of Slow Motion, while also being very social, and single, and careening around Saratoga Springs with some of the other equally young, energetic, and hopeful artists who were in residence. Still, Anne Truitt, who was well into her seventies, made a lasting impression. She seemed, to me, formidable, contained, dignified, disciplined, and I remember that her eyes were both warm and wise. She kept to herself. She wafted into dinner, then went back to her studio straightaway. She seemed at home at the venerable artists’ colony, where I – still in the early years of my life as an artist – felt like an interloper, lucky to be chosen, as if somehow I had slipped through the gates of Yaddo, unnoticed and undeserving.
The sculptor’s warm and wise eyes gazed at me from the book’s cover, that afternoon in Seattle. I bought her book impulsively – I was, in fact, in the midst of a self-imposed moratorium on adding more to my to-be-read pile – and brought it home with me, where it sat buried in a small stack on the desk in my study, obscured by other books I needed to get to, piles of papers that either were, or seemed, urgent.
Months went by.
Last week, I cleaned off my desk. I always think of September as back-to-school time, not only for my son, but for myself. And there she was, once again, gazing up at me. She seemed to be following me around. So I began to read her, with shock after shock of recognition. She died a decade ago, but I felt as if she was in the room with me. I have spent the last week communing with a woman I never knew, across time and space. She has joined the short list of women throughout centuries who I feel are kindred spirits, guides to this perplexed, middle-aged writer. As I navigate motherhood, marriage, community, the passage of time, the financial instability of the artist’s life, the conundrum of the heart and the head, domesticity and creative ambition, as I grapple with my own history and its scars, my wounds-cum-obsessions, it feels like no less then the hand of grace – by which I mean, the hand of another reaching across the impossible – that makes my pulse quicken, my heart soar, and that feeling, once expressed so beautifully by Jane Kenyon, that others have walked this path before me. Me too, Jane Kenyon once wrote. I’ve been there too.
In exploring in her journal what constitutes making art, Truitt writes: “What did I know, I asked myself. What did I love? What was it that means the very most to me inside my very own self?”
So simple, no? What do we know? What do we love? What resides inside our innermost beings?
And this: “It takes kindness to forgive oneself for one’s life.”
As artists – hell, as human beings – if we are lucky enough to endure, with that endurance we have the option of hardening or softening. Of residing in judgement or embracing curiosity. Of diminishing or growing. Each and every moment, we are moving in one direction or the other. It takes a while – perhaps a lifetime – to begin to understand how any of it makes sense. But every once in a great while, the tapestry grows stronger. Threads wind together. A visit to a bookstore on a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest led me to a new and very dear friend and mentor. I will never have tea with her. We will not sit together in her garden. But I love her nonetheless. She is lighting the way.