Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"I am learning to see"

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the only novel of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the narrator, Malte, newly arrived in Paris from rural Denmark (I think) and starting a new life there, repeats in his journal these words: "I am learning to see." Malte's pronouncement fits in my mouth, here in this place I persist in calling new, even though the Minneapolis-to-outback translocation happened more than a year ago for our family. I'm learning to see. At least, I'm feeling the need to learn to see. Because here and in Hillsdale my life felt... Well, "threadbare" was the adjective that recurred. If my mind is a wood-walled room and I'm inside, from the raw wool of experience my ratio weaves tapestries to clothe the walls--internalized, simplified images of the wide world outside, small enough for me to contemplate and live within. My old tapestries are now piled in the corner and these new ones, images I'm frantically weaving of these new places, are thin and gauzy. Quickly my consciousness wears through them, hits the flat, bare wall behind, and I blunder into uncomprehending flatness.

But another sensation counterbalances the threadbareness. There are chinks in my wooden walls, and through them come whiffs of something high and heady, something with an unadulterated, dizzying richness to it; something Not Man-Made. I catch it in the profligate green and drenching golden sun outside my window when I first open my eyes in the morning, or else the unutterable sweetness of the sounds of leaf-swishing rain; in the ruckus of birdspeak (it does not much sound like song to me) and the mutterings of petulant squirrels, loudly heedless of humanity, that distract my attempts to read out of doors; in the wide-open, green-blushed spaces I bike through on dusty roads that roll on under untiring blue, etchings of gravel and dirt upon a broad, green woodblock; in a lonely, weathered-wood sign swinging by a mailbox at the mouth of a long, green-screened drive, the only sign to me from the place's unaccountable, inscrutable inhabitants; and perhaps most of all in the flagrance, the total intemperance of the star-spangled night. Driving home from the Cities one night, incautiously I crane my head out of the car window and upward; around like the jetting pillars of a gothic cathedral the walls of the sky throw themselves upward, on and up and on, impossibly wide, undivably deep, all singing with the white-hot, clear-cold, pinprick, snowflake dust of a million stars, and the whole thing still luminous with the newness of the night, while the jagged ridge of fir-forest fringes the ring with rough-tipped, thick, close shadow. Through the car window, the sight is picturesque. With my head sticking out, stealing glances at the high-off rooftop, night air rushing up my nostrils, the scene is intoxicating.

Urban life is handled and echoed and translated and constructed, middle-manned, criticked, reported upon--which is all very fascinating. But here, in uncultivated nooks, I hear rustles of the unmediated mystery of Life, and I slowly remember that we didn't make that. Nothing we engineer can replace that awful, unplumbable leap between unbeing and animation. The tiniest, raspiest cricket is beholden to none but his Maker for the throb of its blood through its vein and the shivering click of its legs.

Through my open window just now from out in the night I hear some horrible sound, I think the scratchy, pitchless screeching of a feral cat. I've seen one in the daylight looking, if storied, harmless enough, limping its mottled orange and brown way across the yard. At night, I would shudder to meet him.

But it's not merely some "virgin nature" that I'm talking about. Human life, too, partakes of this heady solidity, given and un-counterfeitable. The simple non-negotiables, needs and wants and natural habits, things desired not for their place in cultural habit but for their place in the felt needs of one's own life, emerge for me from the mist of an urban consciousness full to the brim where needs (and more) are abundantly met by someone else's contrivance even before they're felt as needs. I knew grocery stores before I knew hunger, sidewalks before the fear of being run over, water fountains before thirst, couches before weariness, companions before loneliness, entertainment before tedium, baths before smelliness, and Art Crawls before the need to learn to see my world. I was born into a world full of answers; questions came later.

The St. Cloud Art Crawl--that's what I came here to write about. There's a line from the beginning of James Agee's A Death in the Family that often runs through my head. He's talking about all that is familiar to him, and in particular his close family members: even they, he notes with a sort of resigned reproach, a despair pressing outward into daring, "will not ever tell me who I am." I've applied this predicate in my mind to many a subject, many an experience or book or influence. It may show me something, give me some window on the Real Thing, but in the end, it still hasn't turned to look me in the face and tell me what my place in it all is. But after the St. Cloud Art Crawl on Friday it struck me that while you may never be able to tell me who I am, perhaps if I listen to you telling me who you are, I'll be better able to fit myself in here beside you.

The St. Cloud Art Crawl was, as expected, a rather more sanguine creature than its angsty Twin Cities cousin--more of a "decoration crawl" that featured a lot of hang-in-your-living-room watercolor nature scenes in place of St. Paul's tornadoes-of-existential-blackness-and-naked-skeletons-on-canvas. But I found, wandering with my dad through the many gallery-ified salons (if you're looking for a new hairdresser, by all means, try St. Cloud; we have no idea how this city keeps six in business in the one-block downtown) looking at paintings, photography, quiltwork, and pottery, that when I emerged back out onto the street, something was different about my eyes. I was catching things in line and hue. The artists, I found, had lent me their tapestries. Their artistic choices and comprehensible simplifications of the real world were making my surroundings more intelligible to me. I drifted to sleep that night with more texture and thickness around me in my imagination of my world than I have felt anywhere since I last left home. I'm learning to see.

We heard no poetry, but I saw, through the glass, a man sitting in a space aptly named The Black Box, silent and Homer-like. The Bard?

"It reminds me of old New York City," said a guy walking past me.

The Brimming Quill's newest future physical location was duly discovered.


  1. Simply delightful, Maddy. Things are always better when we have to rewrite them. Do you happen to have a Twitter handle, or shall we say a branch for birdspeak?

  2. Thank you, Mrs. von Gohren! Always so good to hear from you.
    Your comment prompted several things: 1) a stroll through your blog, where I encountered many things that made me nearly burst with resonance ("From Garden to City", in particular), and 2) the creation of a Twitter handle--I couldn't resist your description! @thepricklypen