Today, it rained. I slept in.
In 1650s Delft, on rainy days like today, the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer also slept in—I’d like to think.
Yesterday was Saturday, so Mark drove down from Coventry, which is 20 minutes east of Hartford and the birthplace of Nathan Hale. At lunch, I ask Mark what he’d write a song about. “Climate Change,” he says. I watch him. He stares back. Mark, a 62-year old cabinetmaker, is one of my dearest friends. For two years, we have gathered wood from his property to shape into objects—bowls, birds, stools, benches. Around a bonfire, Mark will hand me a beer and list the problems of the world—overpopulation, disease, institutional oppression. Then, I’ll try to keep up with the whirring of his mind. I’ll think of jotting down solutions. But now, seated at a desk, I won’t write about those problems. In my room, there are no pulsing embers to form a hearth—no moon shimmering in the smoke, no Mark dancing around the fire like a bird, pulling brush into its heart. Are these absences valid excuses?—not really. I just don’t want to write about anything important.
Honestly, I’d rather not write about a lot of things. Nothing important for one—by which I mean things that really matter. Also, nothing so personal as to embarrass you, nothing so universal as to embarrass me.
Nothing about my childhood. Nothing about my need (I’ve grown out of it) to pinch certain fabrics when eating certain foods—for milk and cookies, a wool cuff. Nothing to explain why I nod when (seated at a crummy late-night diner) I overhear a guy eating scrambled eggs and telling his son with pointed jabs of a fork, “Son, baseball is a metaphor for life.” Nothing about my sincere affection for the Baltimore Orioles. Nothing about my earliest self-portraits or favorite places to hide. Nothing about the woods of my childhood. Neither fast, red bikes. Nor broken sleds.
Nothing to do with family because you and I are not family. Nothing about how my mother gave birth to her only child twenty years ago and still wishes she could hold him tonight as if tonight were his first night in this world. Nothing about the first time—a few months ago—when my father and I exchanged blows in anger. How our yelling became locked arms, fists clenching each other’s shoulders. I cried—our muscles strained. Please, nothing about my grandmother—the way she shakes her head like a dog sneezing when she is contradicted. Or the wooden spatula she often hit me with when I used to (still do) play jokes on her—smeared my grandfather’s blackberries on my shins and pretended a rabid animal had attacked. Not the story of the country mouse and the city mouse, the only story she has ever told me, that she continues to tell me when I place my head beside her ribs and listen to blood flowing through her heart. Not her fear of death. While the fear is understandable, her response—jostling her decaying limbs like wings—doesn’t seem like a great source of joy or comfort or insight.
Nothing about past love, which is love passed and love lost—waking to rediscover the shape of a familiar body beside you. Thinking about it now—the warmth of a jaw, surprisingly loud and varied snoring I miss, damp and fragrant hair against your nose—will just make us a little sadder. Maybe a lot. These memories only slow us in the present.
Nothing that deals with maps—generally, I hate them. If you describe directions in a city like Chicago or San Francisco or Tucson, I’ll get it all wrong because I’ll imagine Baltimore instead. My ex’s mother screen-prints beautiful, monochromatic maps of Baltimore City: the districts, the ports from which fishermen aboard their schooners once sailed out, a dot where Freddie Gray was arrested the night of April 12th. I’ve got that map stuck in my head—my life pinned on it. For that matter, let’s avoid Baltimore. And the future. Please. Let’s stop—at least, for now.
What would I like to write?
I would like to write with you. Something without words, and therefore, not even a little bit cynical. Once, I dreamed of amoeba-like beings, who communicated via speech bubbles containing single capital letters or numbers. Perhaps we could try that.
At the minimum, let’s write something that others will want and enjoy—something that will bring joy and comfort. We won’t worry about insight. Yes, our art might not be great. For now, I’m okay with that. Jan Vermeer died when he couldn’t provide for his family. The children—at least the older ones—must have found it difficult to place their father’s greatness beside his inability to make ends meet. His wife said it took a day and a half for him to go from healthy to dead. He was in a ‘frenzied’ state—I’m sorry for writing this. I just want to make a point.
I used to stack up pillows on the floor and tell my grandmother to watch me jump over them. She’d scowl and go back to sleep. I’d run into the pillows and screech that she hadn’t watched—therefore, I’d failed. I would pile the pillows atop my napping grandmother. Then, objects: an orchid, TV remotes, a pair of clogs my aunt bought in the Netherlands, audio cassettes of my grandfather’s old sermons.
Some day, why don’t we do this together? I think we’ll both get a kick out of it. My grandmother will not care that she’s never met you—the artist. In fact, she—the still life—will definitely love this. She will laugh until she cries, and so will we.