On the walls of the little house where I grew up hung three images. Above the television in pride of place, a nocturnal cityscape in wavering shimmers of blue and green and purple, prone to a slight jiggle if you bumped it. On the wall above the dining table, an amateur watercolor of a pioneer cabin painted by my grandmother. On the wall of my parents’ cramped bedroom, a studio portrait of my brother and sister and me in Sunday clothes, with wide, false smiles.
I grew up in a small logging and ranching town in the mountains of far northern California, a Gold Rush town of three thousand people surrounded by rolling hills. I was used to wide streets, small stores, big trucks, bigger skies. One movie screen, one library, one small history museum. One elementary school, where my mother taught, and one high school, where my father taught. We all rose at the same time to get ready for school, and I hitched a ride with a parent or walked with friends along the same blocks, past the same houses, every day. We ate dinner at six each evening, around the big white Formica table: canned peas and dry roast beef and slices of Wonder bread. The only radio station we could reliably get in the valley played country-and-western music, though my parents’ record collection was dominated by Percy Faith and Don Ho. More often, we ate to the rhythm of the television news. Then Dad fell asleep on the couch, Mom did the dishes, and the kids watched The Wonderful World of Disney or Lost in Space.
My mother was the first person in her family to get a college degree—five years of normal school and an elementary education certificate. I didn’t know she had taken a minor degree in Spanish until I found her textbooks after she died; I never heard her speak a word of it. I sometimes wondered, in the brutal way children consider their parents, why she had settled for so little—teaching fifth grade, cooking and dishes and laundry, evenings with a novel and a cigarette. Her own mother had been a farm girl and then a truck driver and then a truck driver’s wife. But instead of our spare walls, my grandmother’s house was a paint-by-numbers gallery—mostly rural and bucolic scenes of hayricks and carriages, dogs trotting alongside. She spent a year on the Famous Artists correspondence course and had the certificate to prove it. I didn’t belong with these people; I was an exile—misunderstood but destined, like falsely adopted royalty. I thought precocity was a kind of ticket, a promise of something; I had little enough patience for the long wait of childhood and its endless ordinary days.
My mother’s novels were what she bought with her long days of work; she was a great reader, and I became one, too, as soon as letters formed shapes I could recognize. Our yearning (and did she yearn? I only imagine so; she never complained) was spent in the elsewhere of books. I leafed for hours through her mysterious library, the dense novels and works of history with no pictures, each with her name inside in careful penmanship. A salesman knocked on the door once, trailing a suitcase of World Book encyclopedias; I wanted them like food, and to my shock, she bought a complete set. My father built a bookcase and they displayed it like treasure in the living room, beneath the indigo city—volume after volume of slick pages, photographs, charts, maps, and a fascinating overlay of human anatomy: bones, muscles, nerves, and genitals. The hallway was lined with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which came every month in a plain brown package, like secrets. I loved books dense with print, their unambiguous intent to take me away. In my half reveries, working my way through the sentences of Marjorie Morningstar and The Durable Fire, flipping the overlay back and forth, I always had one eye on the watery, rippled city above the television and its opaque buildings reflected in a dreamy dark river. How she decided on that particular piece of hotel decor, I do not know. I suspect it came from Silverman’s Furniture and went with the new drapes.
Art was a man’s name at our house. My mother taught the lower-grade music classes. I started lessons at eight, pinking away at the upright she’d bought secondhand and inexplicably painted light blue. I made lanyards and pine-needle baskets at Girl Scout camp, crayon scratch drawings and clay ashtrays in school. I was intrigued by paint-by-number, the possibilities; even better was the sedative painting instructor on television, his voice like pudding as he magically produced sunny skies, trees, twilit mountain peaks in just half an hour.
I talked my mother into sending me to a private class. The studio was on Miner Street, an avenue of tall, narrow, pioneer-era buildings, up a dim flight of stairs above Don’s Sporting Goods. The big room had soft wooden floors a century old, a dozen easels in a half-circle. The teacher was a big, dark man with a brooding, gentle manner; he would point us at the inevitable vase and bowl of fruit and walk quietly behind us for a few hours, leaning in to make suggestions. I took to it all at once, the dusty floor and the smells of linseed oil and fixative, the romance of belonging. I loved the rustling silence of the class at work—a few housewives, a couple of teenagers, and this oddly confident ten-year-old throwing herself into the lessons. We drew boxes and apples and flowers, graduating over several weeks from pencil to charcoal to chalk and paint.
At the end of every class, the teacher would stand up abruptly, clap his hands once, and say, “All right! Now spend the rest of your time doing whatever you want!” I always grabbed for the tubes of cobalt blue and olive green, and smeared them about on the canvas, trying to make my own magic city in the mist.
Usually I walked home from art class. I did not think my mother was sophisticated enough to be in the studio, with her red lipstick and sad purse and old-lady scarf tied below her chin. But sometimes she picked me up and stayed to chat a little, teacher to teacher, while I wandered around the studio, running my finger along the backs of the cheap plastic chairs on which we perched. I liked to examine the day’s uncertain drawings on hunks of torn butcher paper taped up casually on the easels, and the proudly displayed paintings of bouquets and mountain scenes hung on the walls. How did he get there, my dark art teacher, to that little town in the mountains? I have no idea. But I knew I wasn’t the only refugee stranded there.
“I know she likes it here,” I heard him say one day. “But. Well, you know.” Mom murmured something. “Well, she is determined,” he answered.
“What did he say?” I asked her on the way home. She cleared her throat. My mother was often reluctant to answer my questions, many of them stimulated by advertisements in the back of magazines she never thought I would read, but she always told me the truth.
“Well,” she said. “Well, he thought that maybe I, maybe we, should think about something else. Maybe we should save the money for the class. Do you know what I mean?”
I swallowed something that day, a loss without words; I never went back to class. Instead I decided to focus on my study of piano, as I was wont to describe it even at the age of ten—if my rote lessons could be called a study, with a large, laconic German man who wore bow ties and walked to our house with the slow dignity of the educated tramp. Another refugee. I could do no more than read the notes to the tick of the metronome, but I constantly asked him to give me harder pieces to play. I’d discovered Satie and his deceptive simplicity, a fateful error for the amateur pianist.
I read my way through three shelves of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and then whatever I could find at the Carnegie Library, from a biography of Carl Sandburg and an encyclopedia of historical costume to Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes. With Sandburg, I started reading adult poetry instead of the insipid anthologies at school (Robert Louis Stevenson: A birdie with a yellow bill/ Hopped upon my window sill,/ Cocked his shining eye and said:/ “Ain’t you ’shamed, you sleepy-head!”—awful stuff). I began to copy lines in my own quote book—the special wisdom of Robert Frost and Richard Brautigan, guru advice.
I was dreaming of dark cities and university and basement cafés where I would read my poetry (it is day/ beloved listen/ I hear the singers/ coming winging/ on the cobblestones coming singing). I felt pressure forcing me up from this house, this town, up and out; it had to be art—the siren call of talent waiting to surface. One summer I took a photography class. We spent hours over fine plates of Steichen and Weston and Arbus, talking about contrast and shadow and unexpected detail. But my own photographs were dull and predictable. If I accidentally captured any effect, like graininess or a portrait with half the face cut off, I would print them immediately. When the class ended and I ran out of film, I put the camera away, vowing to save money for a better one.
To no one’s surprise, I joined drama club as soon as I got to high school. I was cast as the Maid, the Bystander, the Pedestrian, and finally the assistant stage manager, but I was undeterred. I entered the Shakespeare competition, choosing Lady Macbeth’s monologue —“Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers …” I recited this in a growl, my face pinched with something like angst, or a bad oyster. I loved saying the word breasts out loud and always leaned hardest on that great word, gall, which said so much about the world’s vexations. By the age of fourteen, I had a lot of sympathy for Lady Macbeth.
My own native iconoclasm, my ceaseless overreaching, made any direct route to success impossible; I shot myself off course like a North Korean rocket. I dropped the sad German piano teacher one day, never bought more film, didn’t take the art elective, and spent a lot of hours sitting in the park with unemployed men who rode motorcycles. I read what I wanted, studied what I wanted, went to class when I couldn’t find a way out of it, and wrote manifestos explaining why I would not be turning in the assignments I found insulting and small. I got through two years of high school with only two arrests and several court-mandated visits to a psychologist. Then I walked away, walked clean out, and with the psychologist’s help, talked myself into the little college over the snowy mountain pass.
College—a state college, a football school, but to me the height of culture. I was finally with my people. I didn’t take art classes. I took philosophy, semantics, bacteriology, sailing, religious studies, and one class of art history—the golden mean and Un Chien Andalou and what exactly was the difference between Impressionism and Expressionism. This was fine art, and I was glad my mother had spurned the dusty studio after all. What could he have known, upstairs from the sporting-goods store? I loved Seurat; I was drawn to pointillism the way I was drawn to Erik Satie. Seurat’s dots of light, the wild splatters of Pollock, and the easy crayon colors of Klee: Such art, mere spots and lines, seemed possible. This, I thought, this I could do—if I wanted to try. (I never tried.) Instead I had obsessive infatuations and read like crazy: Kurt Vonnegut and T. S. Eliot and Sigrid Unset, Dorothy Parker and Tolstoy and Kant and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Wallace Stevens, who thought that “… to have put there/ A few sounds of meaning, a momentary end/ To the complication, is good, is a good.” I copied that, and many other lines, not always with understanding. I pored over the slick reproductions in library books I couldn’t afford, Modern Art in America and Picture History of World Art. Now and then I wandered across fragments of the shimmering city and all it implied. “Above all else, do not mistake me for someone else,” wrote Nietzsche—or so I wrote in my book of quotes.
What happens with disappointment is the way it digs in like a splinter; the pain is small, precise, unavoidable; it wears on you. I had the soul of a painter and the heart of a musician and the spirit of an actress—I will crawl with the shellfish through puffs of waterdust, sideways claw by claw, I wrote, I hang with one clutching hand above the black rabbit’s hole—and so it felt as though I had been promised that life, promised the right to be in that world. The right to be better than I was. I secretly bought books on how to draw and tricks with acrylics and I played on a pottery wheel and bought another camera. I played Chopin—the simplest nocturnes—and Pachebel’s Canon in D and, of course, the Gymnopédies. Again and again, I could almost feel the movement, trace the curve, the necessary line, but I could not; it was as though the drawing of the necessary line was trapped in my hand, locked away out of my reach. I couldn’t act, could barely play music, and worst, could not paint. Sometimes this felt like amputation or a birth defect, this not. My lack was no matter of draftsmanship or tools, but something far deeper, existential, molecular. I made collages.
By the age of eighteen I was jittery as an ant heap prodded by sticks. I’d already had two years of college, and I couldn’t wait through another—wait for what, I still don’t know. One mild spring day, I went to the college bookstore and sold my textbooks—I was moving on to something else, somewhere else, anywhere else. On to whatever I was expecting. That day I went to the remainder table as I always did and picked up a book called Michelangelo and His Art, mainly for the cover—a carved marble man’s head, small horns jutting out of his curly marble hair. The book cost me all I had just earned.
I moved into a communal house a few hundred miles away. In time, a poster of the Delphic Sybil hung on one wall, a poster of Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy on another. I had a copy of Klee’s Fish Magic in the kitchen and a murky miniature of Water Lilies in the bathroom. I spent hours with Michelangelo, reading about the David and the tombs and the ceiling. I memorized entire sections of text, loose bits of context and criticism woven around dull photographs of rough captives and muscular women. I realized that I loved with passion works of art so common that they were sold as key chains and coasters. But I held these dissonant truths without concern: that I knew nothing of art or literature or culture or history, and understood them all with a discerning skill. Gradually I turned toward the church of politics and spent my time at co-ops and free clinics and in long, wordy committee meetings. One day, I sold my piano and bought a typewriter.
The rent would be paid somehow—how? At nineteen, I went back east to interview at a couple of universities, trailing my fragments of education like a vestigial fin. I found myself in New York City for the first time. I had a few days, a few dollars, so I went to the Museum of Modern Art. What this meant, I did not really know; I had never been to an art museum before. I had never really thought to find the real paintings in the books I read until someone said to me, “Of course, you’re going to MOMA!” But of course. Suddenly I was dream-walking—right before me, Klee’s strange fishes and Weston’s Nude on Sand and Rousseau’s gypsy. I found a small room with two Seurat paintings and several of his small charcoal drawings. There was Guernica and Steichen’s portrait of Garbo and in its own big dim room, Water Lilies in all its quiet, outsized glory.
I was alone and broke and at sea, and I spun through the rooms in a strange chaos of feeling. Giacometti. Miró. Brancusi. Brancusi! I sat for a while on a bench near Matisse’s Dance (I) , with a punch-drunk global citizenry slumped together on the padded benches. I saw what faint clones I’d come to love—fraying posters and book covers speckled with cooking oil—and I saw that everything I’d thought about this art was wrong. There was nothing haphazard or easy here; all the chaos was deliberate. The casual curve I had traced was a meticulously planned and unrepeatable single stroke at once. These were objects, not pictures; I could trace layers of paint, note the bare edge of canvas, the scratch of a chisel, rough strokes so dismissively confident they left me fearful and breathless. Those points of color, those drops of paint were more than beyond me—what had seemed simple turned out to be instead transcendent, to be born of the true simplicity that has passed through complexity into knowledge, into knowing exactly which drop, where. What a wash of feelings broke over me, evoked by those drops. By the knowledge that I would never. Never. Never be able to do this.
Later, almost too tired to go on, I turned a corner and saw Starry Night and started to cry. A guard watched me, concerned. I was crying in a strange mix of gratitude and envy and greed. Starry Night was real after all; it was raw, disturbing, confusing, and it was there in front of me. I could stand there as long as I wanted. For the first time, I knew why people steal art, knew what it means to love the image and its real insertion into the world so much that one wants to consume it like cake or heroin, like water slaking a long thirst.
A few years later, I walked to the Metropolitan along Fifth Avenue through Central Park in the snow, and felt that I was in one of the novels my mother used to dream over in our little mountain town. Back to MOMA, where I discovered Boccioni’s The City Rises and its frenzy of men and horses so fraught with life and fantastic optimism and power. I found Picasso’s fine Woman in a Flowered Hat and Klimt’s enthralling Park. I discovered more than one indigo city, more than one dark river. I went to the Tate Gallery and then the National Gallery in London, walking through each with the kind of private thrill one feels upon hearing important news for the first time. You know you will remember and you know you will soon enough ask someone where they were when they heard, if only so you can say where you were when you heard. Eventually I read Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New—a great opening of doors; I was shocked by it all and everything was new. Once I had stepped irrevocably down another path, I could see the almost infinite size of this world where many people live their entire lives. How much more there was, always so much more: Vermeer, Daubigny, Holbein the Younger, Courbet, Daumier. The annoyance of Pissarro, the challenge of Kandinsky, the frustration of David Hockney. Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, stopping me in midstep. Looking at great art was, for years, an extended single moment of waking up from a dream in which I’d thought I was already awake.
So much more. Millet. Rembrandt. Willem Kalf. The Masters, what a shock of the new. The portraits of Amsterdam smell of supper breath and faint sweat. Heda’s “Still Life with a Gilt Goblet” brought me to a standstill, an intensely tactile scene. (I heard an Englishman behind me say, “Can’t see the point, quite.”) The extraordinary Kitchen Maid—rather small, vibrant, glowing—leaped across the room with its light. If something left me cold—Pop Art stymied me for years—I returned to it a few years later with fresh eyes. I was promiscuous, hungry, indiscriminate, as infatuated by genres and periods and artists as I’d been with Lisa or Keith. (And really, hasn’t that been true all along, this dilemma of the generalist, the appetitive, drawn to so much breadth that depth is sacrificed?) Alone, I finally found the Frick—how did I not know? I went to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, the Whitney, the de Young. I watched a woman in line at the Rijksmuseum suddenly start pushing people out of her way, shoving to the front; people stared at her in bemusement as the guard smoothly stepped in and cut her off before she reached the doors. “I don’t understand what he is saying!” she complained loudly to the rest of us, when the guard pointed her back. “I have a plane to catch and I have to see the Night Watch!” Tokyo. Miami. Pittsburgh! How much more. How much I didn’t know.
I got to Florence, at last, on someone else’s dime because I did not have enough dimes of my own. In my years poring over the graying plates of the Pietà and the sibyls and Moses, I had imagined Florence as a medieval gallery. How strange the real Florence looked, peopled and busy, but I warmed to it: brocade and origami, marbled paper and tiny glass candies, the casual arrogance in all things Florentine. I went after Michelangelo until I had seen everything of his in that whole bustling town—his house and the tombs and the crucifixes and every sculpture and painting. One always struggles to know the difference between love and greed; love is so often acquisitive and demanding. To see the desired, to be allowed only to see—this is not enough. One wants to consume it, to make the thing part of oneself. The sculpture or the painting which is so undeniably and enduringly there is as elusive as water because it can’t be saved; the object itself is a memory, ephemeral, disappearing in the irreplaceable moment of sight.
I stood in the tomb, surrounded by marble in every shade, by Night and Day and Dawn and Dusk, and felt a capacious, almost infinite joy, eternal and brief and pure. More than once I walked down the long hall lined with the unfinished slaves to warmth and daylight and David. I watched for hours as people slowly paced down that dim hall, as though they were afraid they would die before they got to the end; I watched people emerge under the skylight, break into laughter and sometimes tears, take photographs, chatter to each other, and reach up toward the cool calves without a word. I left knowing that all the key chains and coasters in the world can’t take away the thing itself.
Melancholy seeped in. Ambition is, if not actively corrupting, corroding. To simply be happy is not enough; to bake a really good pie or play Monopoly with the kids, go out for a game of tennis with a friend—not enough. The wanting corrodes. I thought I was a prodigy until I met a few. I reached for the brush, the light, eventually for the words, and perfection evaded me—even a shadow of what I could see in my mind evaded me until something simply broke, or rather grew: a membrane that sealed me to the past, away from the glassy world. I suppose genius is no picnic, but to be moderately talented is a chronic wound. “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” How do we adjust to that, what kind of answer is there to such disappointment? To not being able to make what seems so possible to make, play what seems so easy for others to play? To knowing that Flaubert, who occupies another planet from me, felt himself to be a dullard? To be stuck with kettles. Sometimes I teach writing workshops. Sometimes midway through a workshop, I want to take one of my earnest students aside, the woman who quit her accountancy job to write travel books, the retired plumber who has the outline of a novel in his hand, and say, “Save your money.” I know you like it here. I know you are trying. But. You know.
Thirty-some years after I saw Starry Night for the first time, I tiptoed into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. He took no classes, began painting in service to God—later, with more of an eye to profit. His magnificent triptych of orchards in bloom was meant to sell—“motifs which everyone enjoys”—but he couldn’t help himself, he always went too far. So much work, such hurried work—such a frenzied eye. Those wild strokes like the scuffing of thoughtless heels in the dirt, those slaps and smears of paint tossed off almost in irritation, skidding off the edge—blossoms and twigs hanging in space without anchor. Somehow in a few flowering sprigs of almond van Gogh trapped the instant of change—beauty fading even in its beauty; the death to come in all bright gay life. He got genius, and that’s all he got. Art is about being broken, I think; I suspect that great artists are reaching out of a totally shattered place, and it is nothing to envy. (But I envy it still.) He believed he’d done nothing new, nothing truly good; he shot himself.
I found my way to Rome—to one of the dark cities on a river, to the rest of Michelangelo. On a fine morning I was one of the first people into the Vatican Museums, and while everyone else lined up to get headphones for the audio tour, I walked quickly through a series of galleries opening one into the next like Russian nesting dolls, lined with tapestries and murals and maps and Etruscan bowls and vestments and medals, the ceilings wrought with trompe l’oil and the floor a turmoil of pietra dura. The rooms were splendid and deranged, and as I walked they piled layer upon layer until I floated just above the floor in a fever dream. I got lost and finally went backward down an up staircase past warning signs, past If you wish to avoid the embarrassment of alarm signals, refrain entirely from touching any work of art signs and finally pushed open a door that I think was not supposed to be open and found myself in the Sistine Chapel. The empty, silent Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo left years of his life in here, most of them spent lying on his back in lamplight with flakes of plaster watering his eyes until he couldn’t see what he painted. Toward the back, behind the choir screen, straight up, I found the Delphic Sibyl. Serious, extraordinarily strong, she turned from her concentrated study, turned completely. She had endured the long thin line of time that brought me to her at last. I wonder if this love I feel, tainted always by hunger, by infinite shades of hunger, is in fact what love always is. If wishing is a necessary part of love.
I find my way up a back street near the Coliseum to the little San Pietro di Vincoli church, the ancient church of St. Peter in His Chains, the old links kept as relics in a bronze tabernacle under the altar. To the right in the small dim room is a large white statue; it costs fifty cents to turn on the lights, and I don’t have the change. I beg without shame until a gracious Frenchwoman near me puts in the coins and the lights click on. Moses is just beginning to turn his head. His face is angry and severe; he thrusts out a leg as though about to rise. How sad he is (I see this at last), what a piercing sadness, fierce and disillusioned. I am grateful to be free of my younger obsessions, I think. But I wonder at times what happened. Once I thought all of life was lifting me toward something like a great wave. When did the wave break and slide along the shore and drop me in the foam?
Stevens again: “I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life …?”