We all (except you, who I know to be too balanced and sane for any such thing) have our private intellectual obsessions, those topics upon which, unless we are very careful, we can expound for an hour to some poor, unsuspecting soul at a cocktail party. It might be eschatology ("end time study") or soteriology (the study of the salvation of the soul). It might be old car engines or Winston Churchill or the physics of the perfect golf swing. It doesn't really matter what your poison is; the salient point is that you could go on for hours, but to that polite person you've cornered, and whose eyes have glazed over like a frightened rabbit's, it could not matter less.
My favorite quarry for intellectual sport is etymology, the study of word origins. Before you roll your eyes or let them glaze over like aforesaid rabbit, and before you hit the 'back' button on your Web browser in over-hasty retreat, bear me with me for just a paragraph or two while I convince you that this is somewhat interesting, perhaps even deserving of being your next intellectual obsession, if you are the sort of person who has such things. Genealogy, after all, is one of the most popular amateur pursuits, and the genealogy of words is no less dense and surprising a discipline than that of people. To quote Canadian novelist L.M. Montgomery, words aren't made; they grow! They are far more like people than anything else I can think of, and those who slap them together like bricks, with some indifferent punctuation for mortar, assuming one word to be more or less like another, do them a great disservice. Words deserve to have their ancestry known.
Words and phrases have stories behind them, and knowing those stories makes language inestimably more subtle and, well, fun! To take a really simple example, look at the title of this blog: "What's the point?" This is such a hackneyed metaphor, I'll be you didn't even see it, no more than you are habitually aware of the sound of individual consonants when you read. But what is a point? A point belongs to a tooth, a knife, or a rapier. Before it had any abstract meaning, a point was a thing that cut, something of wincing physical sharpness. Once upon a time, the mental picture of an argument, or an experience, having a point, a focused, incisive edge, was powerful and novel.
If that didn't tickle your fancy, try the following etymologies on for size:
ASSASSIN. During the time of the Crusades the members of a certain secret Muslim sect engaged people to terrorise their Christian enemies by performing murders as a religious duty. These acts were carried out under the influence of hashish, and so the killers became known as hashshashin, meaning eaters or smokers of hashish. Hashshashin evolved into the word assassin.
FEISTY.From American dialect feist "small dog", from fysting curre ("stinking cur"), from Middle English fysten ("break wind"), Old English fisting "stink".
NO-MAN'S-LAND. The space between trenches in World War I, quite literally land that no one was able to lay claim to.
LOBBYIST. A person who sat it the lobby of Washington's Intercontinental Hotel, where Lincoln often stayed during his presence, to present his side of an issue.
BANKRUPTCY. Before ATM Machines, bankers sat in the public square on benches, called banks (from the Latin banco). If they were not able to pay back the money placed on deposit with them, their benches/banks were broken (rupt) in half, both as a public shaming and to signify that they were out of business.
I could go on for pages, but you'd probably fall asleep, and then what would be the point?
I'm in one of those Bohemian-rhapsody coffee shops in an up-and-coming neighborhood on H Street. The upstairs corner window overlooks an urban night landscape of line and dark ruined by electric color. The floor is rich, dark, battered wood. Track lighting looks askance at painted Corinthian columns fluted on a bias. Mismatched ladderback chairs line up against the walls, interspersed with bordello-red velvet setees.
My masala is weak. Mallie types on her Mac, one thumb flexed between her lips and her nose, and I set my mug aside in favor of getting I can some work done. For two weeks, I have been staring at some very bad penmanship in my notebook called "Notes for a Blog," and it's time I did something about it.
The Saturday after Christmas, Bethany and I had a post-Nativity/pre-Epiphany gift exchange (I gave black bedroom slippers and got a red teapot), and we went to see the Edward Hopper exhibit at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art downtown.
I have heard Hopper singled out as an "American painter," though I suspect that after some Inuit cave paintings, the ideal of a pristine American art, somehow immune from external influence, is an elusive, if not humbug notion. To his credit, or perhaps to that of his most effusive critics, Hopper delivers the warm approximation you would hope for in a boy born in Nyack, New York at the wane of America's Gilded Age.
I sat on the spare, black bench in the middle of the viewing room amid crowds milling from canvas to canvas, trying with conspicuous good breeding not to block one another's view. The gallery was overcrowded, a testament to Hopper's elevated status as a national commodity. The walls were the color of a gray flagstone, and oddly perhaps, for an art gallery, I found my eyes sinking to the industrial-grade carpet, and studying the hesitant traipsing of gallery shoes, sensible, low-heeled, and with laces. The clock showed two hours past noon. I'd had nothing to eat. Hunger pangs stunted my attention, but weren't without benefit.
In addition to his classic Americanism, much has been said of Hopper and the loneliness of his work. Without overstating a tired point, Hopper does dole out a certain restrained insecurity, and sharpened perhaps by physical appetite, I itched to have something in my fingers' grasp, another human hand to cling to, and despaired that I should not find one if I reached.
Hopper's greatest virtues as an artist are his ability to capture light and mood, particularly the drama of a vacuum, the pregnant silence, the pause in conversation after something devastating has been said, the isolation of unconfessed love. All this somehow lurks, and gives to his pieces a voyeuristic energy, the inherent excitement of bare plausibility, which is enough all by itself to lift the pulse of a gossip-drunk social mammal. In his pictures I see widows, frames, curtains - frames within frames, and the addictive frustration of knowing that the more I see, the less is revealed. They say Hopper painted life as he saw it from the window of a commuter train.
Hopper's buildings lack perpendicularity. His perspective is more-or-less. His nudes, especially the women, have plaster-of-Paris necks and breasts of Styrofoam. Whether this can account for it, I don't know, but he modeled his female subjects after Mrs. Hopper, who could not even have been called handsome. Hopper's imagination has altered but not improved her angular "off-ness," innovations in a baseline distortion. I can hardly fault him. On reflection, Michelangelo's early women had that same garish masculinity, that takes but a moment to strike you but several more to be understood.
For me, the light redeemed all, if indeed there were any redemption required. Its quality was . . . all that I might have hoped for light to be, clear, either with the skinflint radiance of a winter solstice, or the light of a bulb in a cheap motel in 1930, or the light of the northern latitudes when the sun has just bested the treeline, or the white light of a port town at noon, that grabs the sun and hurls it back from sand and wave and sail.
I stopped in the museum shop on the way out. I bought a postcard of "Chop Suey" for Michelle that I am strongly tempted to keep, except that now I've stated my intention publicly, and she might read it.
May I yield the dreams that I have dreamed to you without regret. May I have more courage to remember and more wisdom to forget. May I rejoice in another's honor and never think to covet. May I hear my friend's grim struggle and not think myself above it. May I do the small things well, my God, because they are the great ones. May I on narrow roads dwell, my God, because they are the straight ones. May I love when it costs me something, and think not to retreat May I hear when you call me, Abba, and come with ready feet.
June - July 2004, Washington, DC and Villa Le Balze, Fiesole, Italy
June 11, 2004 1922 38th Street, Northwest Washington, DC - 6 days until Italy
Four words in combination terrify me: I want to write. It is a realization that crept upon me slowly, like suddenly noticing a freckle that you've had all your life. I did not create the desire, but slipped into it after a convoluted academic journey. Writing is like "shopping" for clothes in my mother's closet. It is not new or shiny. It simply fits, in an inevitable, pleasing way.
The writing bug scares me because I know I cannot shake it. Whatever it means will haunt me through every cocktail party and Christmas gathering. Every time a friend of my parents asks,
"What do you plan to do after college?" I answer, "I want to write." At this crucial moment, a blank silence emerges to let me announce that I am joking, or at least considering an elaborate contingency plan for when I become destitute. The soundtrack in my head produces a thunderclap, like the first appearance of Count Dracula's castle in a 1930's Gothic horror film.
After this moment, I am told that it is a wonderful idea, and before the conversation shifts to my love life (This is also a short conversation; I have none.) I catch a veiled glance that, roughly translated, suggests I am afflicted by some charming blend of naivete and arrogance.
Perhaps in the era of celebrity memoirs, dreams of authorship do require a certain narcissism. My main contribution to the march of mankind will be some pages scratched with my perspective on the world. And I assume it will be important enough for someone else to read it, in short, to turn off their thoughts and let my monologue echo through their cranium. I must believe this, or I could never put pen to paper.
June 18, 2004 (Fiesole, Italy)
Assigned Writing - Personal History
I escaped from Dallas to California when I was fifteen months old. Besides a lingering affection for yellow roses (my middle name is rose, and yellow is for friendship), I suffer no pangs for the place of my birth. A flat, coastless horizon would suck the air from me - I know it. Jack Johnson sings a line I love: "I miss you like I miss the ocean when I got to sleep." It's true. I miss the purr of waves on sand like I miss the bell of my mother's laughter, like I miss Catherine (in Tikrit now) singing bitter love songs under West Virginia stars. But even in memory I feel restless. I and all I miss are altered, save One. As someone said, "Our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee." I know many houses, but one HOME.
June 22, 204 (Il Bargello, Florence, Italy)
The carpeted stairway of the Bargello spills into the gallery from below, arresting my eyes with bristling stars in a vaulted wash of blue. My breath catches, unprepared. Glass, boxy cases, like the clear houses of saints' bones, fill the corners, scale the walls, anchor the floors. Gold-encrusted artifacts elbow each other for space: saints and emperors, madonnas and pagan gods, ivory French solar calendars the size of playing cards. Their creators died centuries ago.
Room open into room. The arches swell upward, higher than before, in an ambitious grab for space. Crosses and fleurs-de-lis march across their curves in an intricate, colorful drill. Statues rest on marble columns. Perfection. Grace. Balance. Donatello's saucy David cradles curled fingers in the soft flesh at his waist. I fall into funeral-home silence at Berini's bust of Costanza Bonarelli, the mistress he sculpted privately (some time after he stole her from his brother and before she cavorted with the brother of his apprentice; he punished her infidelity by later sculpting her as the Medusa). The soft crosslight brightens her vulnerable profile: wind-loose hair, parted mouth, and unclasped blouse of fabric light as goosedown. From around a corner, Cosimo de Medici, in the guise of a Roman general, has begun to cast me knowing, self-assured glances. The stone around me breathes. Marble whispers stories like acts of second creation, the sons of chisel-bearing demi-gods. I feel awed and oddly strangled. My fingers graze the inviting sandstone walls and recoil at their coolness.
A woman with loose brown hair goes nose-to-nose with Donatello's David. An army-green T-shirt with a fuschia fleur-de-lis pulls acroos her chest, and a spiral notebook dangles limply off her wrist, marked with heavy, awkward sketching. Her Americanism is candid and undebatable. She cocks her head at the nude and does not draw; I cannot fault her. Inside the immense Bargello walls, still a prison in this regard, art has ground to a sublime halt, its progression suspended in the past. Every presumptuous artiste is doomed to back-peddle, sheepish and awkward, into the gargantuan shadow of Michelangelo. I understand how the Futurst Martinetti felt, I think, when he wanted to smash them up and start afresh. Perfection provokes a stupified inertia.
I step to an open window where garlic, plaster, and diesel vie on the breeze. Swallows like black half-moons swoop to homes in the ancient masonry, and veined antennae sprout from rooftops like spindly limbs, In the street, a tour guide gesticulates wildly to underscore a voice so loud that it floats up to me in the upper gallery. I just glimpse a woman in a flowing maroon dress with willowy, olive arms and a pregnant belly. She slides into an alley of achre walls witha gondola's grace. A scoop of gelato falls on the flithy cobblestones, and a businessman in loafers and a tie parks his Vespa. Artless and masterful, life goes on being negotiated, nay, created, in the piazza.
June 28, 2004 (San Gimignano, Italy)
"Chiara. Mi chiamo Chiara."
The name flops to the ground, flimsy, inept. It doesn't belong to her. She spins out more, faster: "Sandra, Patrizia, Cinzia. Cecilia, Roberta, Alessandra. Oppure Luciana."
Invoking feminine syllables like a witch muttering spells, she sits on the stones in the shadows of the cathedral, little-girl graceful, unmoving and bored, with her forehead propped sideways against her long fingers. White, rumpled cotton, embroidered in turquoise, blooms around her brown shoulders. She watches the harpist and doesn't watch, pinching her eyebrows together. A gold ring flashes out of her sloped nose. A mess of curls tightens in the heat. As the song ends, the onlookers, pink, sweating, clap and jangle their smudged currency into a box. The harpist smiles benevolently and rests her light hands on the strings, like a waterbug slides over a pond, "like the Spirit of God hovering over the waters," she even said once to her daughter when she'd being going to the Anglican services. The daughter had frowned, then, and the mother had laughed, nervous and falsetto.
Her daughter unfolds herself fro the piazza stones, gritty and dull, and swats the caked dust from her corduroy pants.
The mother comes home in the evening, when the kitchen soaks in yellow light and smells like tin and overheated olive oil.
"Hello, Francis," she chirps. She speaks only French and nasal English to her daughter. Italian, in romantic songs, is just for the change-flicking tourists, who descend en masse to the medieval towns, "doing" them, then back to the bus and the next picturesque souvenir shop. She straightens the leaf of a crushed polyester grapevine on the swooping neckline of her dress. Olive-green rings spread gently under her arms. The brick-red blush on her cheeks has wandered left. Francis looks at her mother. She has felt like Francis all day, has felt is like the rough piazza stone through her corduroy pants. She closes her small eyes and tries to imagine the harpist as something less comical, something more like the mothers of her friends, with chicken fat on her sleeve and biscotti in the oven, begging her to eat just a little bit more. Francis wonders whether she ought to have left out some dinner, but no, the mother would not have eaten it. The mother complains about her hips and wants only volumetric foods, whatever that means.
"A few more coins, and we're out of this town for America. Your father will be a big man, a man with respect, in America. He'll have one of those high-rise apartments in New York for us." Saying this, as though to herself (Francis is not listening.), she loosens her fingers and lets a handful of coins plunk one at a time into a jewelry box, savoring the round, rich sound of metal on crushed velvet. All last month, it was France, Francis observes. Her father had a place in Lyon, her mother gushed. It is whichever she likes more at the time. Francis's mother kisses her fingers loudly, affectedly, and presses them to a yellowed, worn-out postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge. It says, "Francis - I love you and I love your mother. Best wishes, Dad" When Francis was six, she recognized her mother's looping 'd' in the signature. She has never denied the charade. Dad is a person she never knew, and she is afraid that if the illusion falls, the last string tying her mother together will snap like a cheap string of beads. Heavy with too much sun, she sinks down in a chair and closes her eyes. Just for a moment.
Francis feels her head fall loll of the back of the chair and blinks awake. The room is inky blue, and the window gapes open to the feeble light of burned-out stars. The medieval towers cut the night in pieces. The dirty lace curtain moves. She stands and rubs the ring in her nose. Her mother's jewelry box is open and empty again. Her mother the elegant harpist lights strewn across the lime couch, face planted in a pillow and scorched red hair flipped over her eyes. Mascara traces bars acroos her nose and down to her mouth like a Carneval mask. Francis straightens her arms and legs, as smoothly and dispassionately as a housekeeper making a bed, and pulls the dark bottle from between the mother's lithe, bony fingers. She walks to the second-story windows and douses the azaleas (tourist like to take pictures of the azaleas, and even of their clothes drying on the line) with the rest of its contents. She scrapes a chair under the sill to wait for alba. The dawn.
"Alba," she tries. "Si, mi chiamo Alba."
June 29, 2004 (Fiesole, Italy)
A builder with curled, broken hands Wasn't God a carpenter?
June 30, 2004 (Florence, Italy)
Assignment - Find a "Peephole Into Eternity"
I feel like a peeping Tom looking for "keyholes into eternity," so I get lost instead. I have wandered across the Arno. Somewhere above the Chiesa dei Santi Girolamo e Francesco alla Costa (what powerful lungs the medievals had!), I wish for a garden to hide in, but the one at my back is sealed and unloved. It has padlocked iron gates, like sharp, erect, lances, but rusted away in layers like skin peeling off decrepit bones. From behind the gate, lanky trees have littered leaves that shrivel into old women's ears. Shards of amber bottles trap light, and a cabbage butterfly shuttles aimlessly, a little drunk. This is the closest I will get to the garden. I could probably knock the gate in with a kick, but who wants to do that?
I like to read the graffiti in cities. Some are holy, some are stupid, and some are very, very drunk, but they are more honest than epitaphs engraved in marble by the self-appointed bearers of power. At least, I like to believe so.
Holy graffiti along the warm-ash wall of Santa Croce: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." The pious vandal quotes San Giovanni's gospel. To see the careful letters, I peer over a hunched vendor selling cheap, master miniatures of Della Robbia art. "Kitsch," I think, and feel well-educated.
Across the tight street from the church of long-winded founders, Indian music slides down from a second-story window, throbbing. Above the locked door of House 52, a glossy Madonna and Child smile a benediction from behind a glass inset. Fake gold-leaf flakes slowly off their halos.
From a crumbling umber facade, the graffiti of some angry derelict demands legal marijuana. While I'm at it, I should live my life and always revolt. I revolt against the stranger who wants me to revolt. Across the street, a girl loved Kamurah tanto, he knows how much, but now she hates his tantissimo, even more than she loved.
A little way from the Arno, I can nearly make out the river's scent from the rising clouds of diesel. There is a flight of 46 stairs, slabs of moss-choked, rough-cut stone. It hosts one pigeon, a vagrant shopping cart with cock-eyed wheels, a girl with a red purse, and me.
Above the thirty-second step, Riccardo has written, "After wandering through half of Florence on foot, with the vague hope of meeting Piero Pelu, we have decided to sit down on these step in the company - nay, the sweet company, of Marisa."
I do the same. I have a ludicrous feeling of gratitude to these steps, covered in pigeon mess, gnawed by the moss, littered by squashed cigarettes, for just letting me be. And I feel the same to this whole old, tender city. She is not bothered at all by the ruinous crowds, the flash-bulb army, hauling with them their baggage of Della Robbia kitsch. She overlooks the potheads scribbling on her public works, and she endures the crying-loving hatred of Italian women. She knows her own beauty and her own decay, and she swallows it all in her century stride. She even has room for my too-sad thoughts and my too-vague hopes, which, against all intention, I brought with me across the ocean and the Arno. She lets me not run from them. Did you ever wish to be like a city?
An old woman with milky, floating arms stops dusting her window to smile at me. Not a word. Just benediction.
July 5, 2004 Termoli, Puglia, Italy
Four hours in a tight, dingy car become some of my happiest in Italy. As the Intercity sputters out of Termoli station, I suck in my breath to squeeze down the chute-like aisle of Carrozzo 5, sagging under the bulk of souvenirs that I had promised not to buy. Stuffing my bags onto greasy steel racks, I make self-pitying comparisons between myself and a dish at Battello di Ebbro,: squid in purgatory.
I retreat into the musty depth of old, orangey upholstery, preparing a bored grimace to lock my face into; but sometimes even the sacred right to misery is violated. A little girl is swinging her fuzzy, coltish legs. Her feet are like pendulums. She flips the glossy pages of a fashion magazine, points to a banana-yellow watch, and bubbles to me, "Sono belli."
Her eyes smile. Her voice smiles. She will not be ignored. She wears a camouflage, sleeveless shirt with hot-pink accents and pants that match. She has a neon elastic arm band with a marijuana leaf design, and a Band-aid curls off her shin. Her name is Alessa. She is six and she is beautiful, with fly-away hair sun-bleached into warm maple syrup. She plays a hand-clapping game with her mother, Paola, accompanied by a chirping song-song. I know the tune, like a remembered scent, even if the words are strange. Her mother calls her Ali. My mom does that, too.
At Pescara, a strained, umber-skinned woman cranes her head into the compartment. She slides her daughter into the empy seat beside a lumbering beast of an adolescent with a Walkman and fly-eye sunglasses. She squats in the aisle, but soon the armrest slide up to accommodate her solid hips. Mother and daughter have gotten onto the wrong train.
"There wasn't any sign! Nothing's ever marked!" says the new addition, by way of making introduction, (Complaint is the preferred Italian vehicle for smalltalk)
"I know!" soothes Paola, adopting an injured tone at the perils of train travel.
After a liberal shower of biscottini and prosciutto sandwiches (Paola offers me one and a smile,) they fall into animated chatter, united by the one bond that elbows out politics and the soccer craze in Italian culture: the cult of motherhood.
"The Intercity is a little slower, but it's better. I can put the armrests up, and the piccolina can sleep."
"I know!" says the mother of umber skin. Her eyes, round and dark like walnuts, cast inclusive glances at my face, and she spices her phrases with huge, broad smiles.
"And when they spend too long with their grandparents, they get so disrespectful! So spoiled!"
"I know! The words they let them use --" shrills Paola, her eyebrows sprung like italics.
They are instant friends.
Paola replies to the insistent ring of her cell phone. It's her mother, just checking how far the train has gone. My mom does that, too.
Their daughters examine each other, silent, eyes like marble shooters. The newcomer is four-and-a-half, she announces gravely, and she has a stick-on tattoo of a white daisy. She passes Alessa's intense scrutiny. To seal her approval, Alessa reaches into a lint-covered handbag to reveal her worldly treasures: a pair of child-sized, flaming red sunglasses and a Chinese fan that shows a phoenix when spread open. She even lets her the newcomer slide the neon armband onto her limp, pudgy wrist. They soon lose themselves in unfathomably intricate games in the aisle, ripping the dank air with punches of giggling.
At Ancona, our compartment guests descend back onto the platform to catch another train going in the correct direction. The girls give each other fluttering kisses, lifting up their chins.
I make a trip to the stall labeled W.C. There is no toilet paper no soap, a lock that doesn't lock, and a spigot gasping exhausted spurts of "Acqua non potabile." The toilet bowl alarms me. Through the bottom of the hole, the train tracks rip past like smeared charcoal. I almost laugh out loud.
As I shuffle back to my seat, an opening can of Heineken spits sour-smelling froth on me, adding to the stench of cigarettes and worse.
But I like this train. The people press together into makeshift neighbors. Of course. I think of the bodies crowded onto DC's Metro cars, bristles out, and the eyeball acrobatic to avoid brushing glances.
At Rimini, I give up my seat to a nun with a soft, billowy face like wind-taut sails. Fields and sky stream by in melted, muted matches of yellow, green, and robin's-egg blue. Within ten minutes, the nun has had an attack of conscience about having taken my seat. Paola flanks her to cluck at me like a disapproving hen. They tuck me in between on the seat. A sign on the glass door tells us in four languages to close the compartment doors. Ours, unobliging, gaps open to spill cool air indulgently into the corridor.
Alessa, nested in her mother's lap, offers me a droopy, gap-toothed smile and flops into sleep. Her small brown toes poke my kneels until Bologna station. I am strangely, conscious happy for four whole hours. My skin feel sand-blasted, almost clear; I might spill, like an over-filled pitcher of watered wine. Paola traces Alessa's face absently with her fingertips, reassured by its warmth. My mom does that, too.
July 6, 2004 (Fiesole, Italy)
Tiger's-eye sun sinks, Jade earth blackens like creation's fourth good day
Have you ever noticed the polluted blackness of a late spring thaw, when the water has frozen, thawed, and sealed itself again like a frightened pillbug, like a flinching, bruised eye under the last crust of ice, a blackness of muddle and menace? That is the black of the sky tonight, and the few stars that outshine the city lights drift upon it like stunted snowflakes born from a cold cloud.
I hit a certain point when trying to sleep is a futile exercise. I call it quits at 3 am, as a rule. Any later, and I'll sleep through work. So I have just gotten up again, dyed my hair, shoved three loves of sourdough bread into the oven, and next I'll put on some tea and finish pasting recipes into my recipe book with a bottle of rubber cement. I doubt I'll remember much of it later, what with insomnia's deletion of short-term memory, but that's half the fun. I am the cobbler, and these sleepless hours are my elves.