“When I write about my parents, when I speak about them to my children as my sister Louise spoke to my son, Samuel, I feel a profound loyalty to them because I felt in them the same unspeakable loneliness. I guard my tongue that I may honor their privacy, grant them respect. I sieve the good — their gentle ways, their traditional virtues, the quiet fidelity to moral principle that my mother embodied, the wry, merry slant my father brought to bear on life — so that they may pass on to their descendants, and mine, a legacy that will strengthen them as they in their turn strive toward good.”
These sentences from “Prospect: The Journal of an Artist” are gentle and wise, traits I sometimes lack, but am learning to cultivate from Anne Truitt, known for her minimalist sculptures and her sensitive writings about her life and work. She died in 2004. Look at her teaching philosophy, rich with hope and respect:
“I have found that I too can trust students to find their own way to process themselves into their work. For my part, I give information as needed, in a form as tailored to the particular person I can make it. More crucially, I maintain, and manifest a steadfast faith in each individual’s potentiality, provide them with the reinforcement that will give them, I hope, the confidence to translate aspiration into achievement.”
Besides directing me, Truitt also broadened my vocabulary with the word pentimento, which is the visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas. The hidden images can be found in centuries-old artwork and more recent advertisements. Truitt saw it within her grandson, who suffered from a disease that is incurable, life-threatening but controllable.
“I saw on his face the look of mute patience that marks children who are quietly beginning to cast off their moorings, giving way to the slow tide of death. By the time I visited him in the Richmond hospital, this look was fading. But its pentimento remains.”
Layers make me curious for the secrets they hide and exposure that results. The addition, its discovery and subsequent distraction create its own meaning, maybe even layers of meaning. I am also intrigued by what the pentimento exposes: the creative act, the mind at work.
Long ago a man newly in love made a picture from two photographs by laying his face over mine so they merged and overlapped, creating an illusion of double exposure. Not exactly a pentimento, but it feels like one with its ghostly images, and its disconnection. The faces turn away from each other: His eyes stare into the distance, mine look with anticipation out of the picture at the viewer. Maybe this is why he added the third layer, a single word “One” burst in flame.
The gift held not only the passion of the moment but the promise of today, more than 20 years later. Within its ghostly overlay, mouth becomes eye and lash turns to lip line, reminding me of Truitt’s cautionary advice to guard the tongue. Truitt writes openly, but respectfully about her parents’ weaknesses, and the failure of her own marriage, and where she fell short in mothering her children. Affection matured into love and loyalty, and sometimes loneliness. A legacy was formed, one that Truitt felt compelled to share, and one which I might learn from as I look at the picture of the woman who is now me, the man who became my husband and the four children created from our oneness. Truitt, one final time:
“An interview gives scope for self-explanation but even so is never entirely satisfactory. Some automatic ‘acting’ raises my voice a tone or two. I try to be perfectly lucid and to ‘tell the truth’ but seem only to approximate the honesty with which I speak to myself. Sometimes, if the interviewer is skillful and intuitive enough to ask evocative questions, I find myself saying what I have never said before and did not know that I knew. At best, an interview is a kind of intimacy — the kind that two congenial strangers might enjoy during a night of bus travel, knowing that they will part forever in the morning. In this sense, an interviewer and I weave between us a narrative to which we both appear to be equally loyal. But we are not. We entertain hidden agendas while we chat. Our composite narrator evaporates when we say good-bye. I am left with my thoughts; the interview cuts and trims a scenario to fit publication. All this interesting communication goes on in an exciting atmosphere. What is essentially a mutual seduction takes place, a seduction that leaves the person interviewed abandoned and the interviewer pregnant with a tale.
“When I write about myself, I ‘interview’ myself. There is a gap between the life I have lived and live, and the life I write. Partly this is the inevitable gap between experience and expression, partly what I make by deliberate choice. I am as honest as I can be about what I write — that is a moral imperative — but I ‘retain my reticences’: I omit, abbreviate, abridge and retrench. The keep of my castle remains private.”
I’m reading Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco writer, historian and activist, whose book “The Faraway Nearby” is a study of story, her story, her mother’s story, our collective stories. She argues that sometimes we aren’t telling the stories, but the stories are telling us how to love and hate, to see or be blind. To be free, Solnit says one must learn to hear the stories, to question them.
I’ve read essays of hers that address Big Issues like climate change, but what I want to share are her sentences that examine the intimate and hurtful relationship with her mother. Why? Because it’s a cautionary tale that casts a long shadow, a darkness that reaches to the edges of my own story as daughter and mother. In “The Faraway Nearby” Solnit writes:
My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter… For mothers, some mothers, my mother, daughters are division and sons are multiplication; the former reduce them, fracture them, take from them, the latter augment and enhance. My mother, who would light up at the thought that my brothers were handsome, rankled at the idea that I might be nice-looking. The queen’s envy of Snow White is deadly. It’s based on the desire to be the most beautiful of all, and it raises the question of whose admiration she needs and what she thinks Snow White is competing for, this child whose beauty is an affliction. At the back of this drama between women are men, the men for whom the queen wants to be beautiful, the men whose attention is the arbiter of worth and worthlessness. There was nothing I could do, because there was nothing I had done; it was not my actions that triggered her fury, but my very being, my gender, my appearance, and my nonbeing — my failure to be the miracle of her completion and to be instead her division.
These are heavy sentences, and my sharing of them isn’t an inference on my relationships: My mother is a whole person who doesn’t live through her daughters or sons, and is a role model for me as a parent. And yet, there are memories where the self, myself, my mother’s self, my daughter’s self, was reduced. Solnit’s math made personal.
How does one safeguard against the shattering of the self, the breaking into glass shards that reflect and refract others’ light, unable to make one’s own?
Prevention might be found in seizing on something bigger than the self, bigger than the child, the spouse, the family. This is where Solnit’s personal essay touches her political one, her working-class hero takes control, tells her own story. Protection might also come with solitude. A few hours. A day. What about a weekend with only the silence and the self for company? It think somewhere along this path traveled between community and solitude is where one can, as Solnit says, “pause and hear the silence … and then … become the storyteller.”
The photographs of four sisters taken once a year for 40 years are beautiful in their honesty. Nicholas Nixon’s collection of the Brown sisters, begun in 1975 with the latest image just published in the New York Times this month, is a powerful documentation of aging. The accompanying text by Susan Minot clarifies the mix of awe and envy I feel as I view the sisters’ relationship.
“Throughout this series, we watch these women age, undergoing life’s most humbling experience,” Minot wrote. “While many of us can, when pressed, name things we are grateful to Time for bestowing upon us, the lines bracketing our mouths and the loosening of our skin are not among them. So while a part of the spirit sinks at the slow appearance of these women’s jowls, another part is lifted: They are not undone by it. We detect more sorrow, perhaps, in the eyes, more weight in the once-fresh brows. But the more we study the images, the more we see that aging does not define these women. Even as the images tell us, in no uncertain terms, that this is what it looks like to grow old, this is the irrefutable truth, we also learn: This is what endurance looks like.
“It is the endurance of sisterhood in particular… With each passing year, the sisters seem to present more of a united front. Earlier assertions of their individuality — the arms folded across the chest, the standing apart — give way to a literal leaning on one another, as if independence is no longer such a concern. We see what goes on between the sisters in their bodies, particularly their limbs. A hand clasps a sister’s waist, arms embrace arms or are slung in casual solidarity over a shoulder. A palm steadies another’s neck, reassuring. The cumulative effect is dizzying and powerful.”
My three sisters and I are anchored by children and separated by distance – Molly in Germany, Kyna in Fairbanks, Cheyenne in Reno and me in Seattle – so I don’t know when we will converge in one place again. Does even a picture of the four of us exist somewhere in the family photo albums? No matter. I pledge to record what the future will hold, deepening lines in smiling faces. I wish I could begin today.