I’m due for a significant birthday this week, the one that most women associate with the butt-end of their child-bearing potential. But I shall observe it in the same way I have observed all my birthdays back to the age of 18: I shall spend the day naked in front of a full-length mirror, drawing myself. I plan to do this every year for as long as I live, and I welcome even the most grotesque changes in my appearance for the interest they add to the birthday portraits. It is for these inquiries into the action of time and character on form that my biographers will especially thank me.
Oh, not that they’re at my heels yet, those biographers. I’m too far ahead of them, and in my lifetime shall remain so. I can just about prove it, too. Get this. Every year, there’s a big drawing show in my city, curated by someone fancy. It overlaps my birthday, and I always enter the self-portraits from the year before. Not once have I been juried into this show, or into any show, anywhere, that would establish me as an artist of merit. Since my eyes are trained on the future, this doesn’t bother me like you'd think. I even attend the drawing show openings to find out what's working for the current darlings, safe as I am from imitating them.
I run into quite a few people I know by sight at these events, though I can’t imagine who they think I am. I don’t carry on like an artist. If there’s such a thing as a proofreader personality, then I must have a touch of it. That’s what I do all night – proofread for a law firm downtown, purging significant errors. When the lawyers return to their desks in the morning, they’ve got all this creamy copy. You can’t really have a conversation about it. Nevertheless, by now I’m a fixture at the big annual opening, where I’m usually thrown a few crumbs.
You’re looking at that awfully hard, you know.
That’s the basic remark that gets made to me. Yes, I know – I’m feeding my hungry eyes, I don’t say. I never know what to say. That used to be all right when I was younger – no one finds fault with slender, speechless girls. In those days I could think my own thoughts with people chatting around me, and it was almost like being among friends. It’s harder now. I’m old enough that I should be asking others about themselves, drawing out younger people and fostering their well-being – and I don’t know how to do any of that. Nor do I care to. I live for art.
So did Tosca, of course. And I get lonely, so I talk to her sometimes. You’ve heard the aria – I have lived for art, I have lived for love… Sure, Tosca feels cosmically shafted because she’s put all her eggs in one basket. But that’s not it at all, I keep telling her. To have lived for art and love both – it’s too much to do, not too little. You can’t live for love if you live for art, because you can’t mess up your life that way. If you live for art, you must sedulously avoid the whole ghastly dance of family and love. It’s a very good idea not even to have had a mother.
And, children? Now there’s a giant schuck. Who says they have to be good, beautiful, smart, healthy and self-supporting?
You think it won’t happen, but they could even be developmentally delayed – nice way to put it. A few years back, I lived across the street from a big, ugly house with a cyclone-fenced yard where they ran a program for young adults with developmental delays. An absolute torment to me! How could I know for certain that one of those kids was not the child I gave birth to twenty-odd years ago? I know nothing of it, I wouldn’t even look at it before they took it away, but there I was, possibly domiciled not a stone’s throw from it.
Worse, the inmates were no end of friendly. They’d wave and smile and try to start conversations with me when I was on my way to the market. They’d poke two or three digits through the diamonds in the cyclone fencing, fingering my air supply. It was just too much, whoever gave birth to them. And I had an almost ideal space on that street – big windows, no cockroaches, and a corner under the eaves for my futon – with hopes of hanging in for years and years. It was so cheap! But my sensitivities were such that I had to move as soon as I could save enough money to rent a truck.
Tosca is very far from a bad person to run these thoughts by. As an artist, she understands sacrifice. But Tosca, I tell her, I am talking about tremendous sacrifices. Would you have been up to them had they not brought you fame? If they had brought you - instead of fame - simplicity?
I have always felt favored by fortune that that my body of work evolves independently of such questions as money, the approval rating of others and trendiness. I don’t ask that anyone buy it, like it, or even acknowledge it. And I require just about as little in the way of an audience as a person practicing meditation. Oh, not to suggest that drawing is for me entirely experiential. If it were, I’d be happy to destroy my work at the end of a studio day; instead, I catalog and store everything like a conservator. I’ve got a little museum of myself – a futon, a big mirror, and a little museum. A life of devastating simplicity.
Tosca knows I was not always so wise. In art school, one had to submit to critiques, and relying on others for a sense of reality was a hard habit to shake. Art students who don’t imagine they’re in the fast lane to fame suppose instead that the world will be hostile to their art, glamorously reviling it. That people who matter will get worked up enough to hate it. As if. I, no more than any student, figured on a world with an endless capacity to be underwhelmed by the very best I knew how to do. But I soon discovered powerful knowledge – that indifference is only killing if it's what you get while seeking something else. Don’t seek that other thing, and an Everest of indifference cannot bury you.
Still, I do seek entrance to that big drawing show every year. But only because my biographers will turn up my more than twenty rejection letters from its discerning curators, interleaved with acid-free papers, so they’ll jump out at them, fresh and bright and stinging. They will never infer from the extraordinary care with which my work has been preserved how overlooked it shall have been. Oh, the linen-lined portfolios, the fitted boxes, the meticulously cross-referenced inventories… It’s as if each drawing had a genealogy, a christening dress and a cradle.
Tosca, I’ll be happy to take a hard look at my naked self later this week, in the unsparing light of my day-long annual ritual. Radiant to record whatever I see, hanging like a lover over every little difference for the worse. Rembrandt knew better than to give himself the aging diva treatment, with every passing year a more elaborate headdress, increased gaudiness, cagier fat-concealment – and I know better too. Rembrandt and I are not mocked by corsetry or jewelry, and nobody pays us to make ourselves appear grander or younger or better pleased than we are. It’s just our mirrors, our materials, time and the truth – if we can catch it.
Could you live this way, Tosca? Could you labor all night at a job so self-effacing that ideally no one even knows you’ve done it? Could you sing all day in the shower, taking care to do those exercises that will allow your voice to grow both richer and more shimmering, so that you could go on to sing even better – in the shower? And what about singing in front of a big mirror in your birthday suit? Good way to lose your audience, huh? Good way to get indisposed!
Well, a birthday is a natural opportunity to wonder why you have such a low-impact life. For this reason, it’s key to be doing something you can’t dispute the significance of on that day. I’ve read that getting your hair done and dressing with extra care in a new garment can be good for birthday morale, but that translates directly into less money for premium art supplies and conservation materials. You want to know how I visualize morale? It looks a lot like a six-foot stack of hand-torn Fabbriano drawing paper. That’s what security would look like too. And probably even love. Yes, I would rather have a six-foot stack of Fabbriano paper in my life than anything else Italian of that height. Tosca, you would not be able to approach that purity of vision – not with a tenor like a puppy and the Roman Chief of Police hot on your tail. How much finer to revel in personal simplicity, aspiring to an ever more transparent life. A life like a pane of glass. Look at me, Tosca – I shed personal belongings as naturally as others acquire them, I spurn the entanglements they seek, would quickly be surfeited by the sensations they crave. I keep going week after week on apples and mashed chick-peas, and this is no austerity but alchemy resulting in that which is most precious – daylight, and time.
Without fanfare, Tosca, I roam the city, without having lingered to make sure that my diva-cloak and my genius-hat are fetchingly adjusted. And look at you – you fight it so, with your retinue, your feathers and your long winding train. Why not go about in public as naked as the cold allows, accepting that you are but the custodian of your gift, that it is your gift that matters and not your high-waisted, low-necked gowns. And certainly not your crimes. Yes, go about naked, and see what happens. I can tell you, no one will be making up to you then.
Do you think, Tosca, that you are the only woman ever to have to dispatch the heavy in her life? Well, you carry on like you thought so. Ooh, the candelabra, the crucifix! I came relatively late to proofreading, little suspecting till recently that I had a natural affinity for tweaking the kind of unclear sentences that give rise to legal misunderstandings. An enlightened lawyer, whom I’ve since retained for other reasons, saw that it would be the perfect gig for me, but for many years I did the kind of odd jobs that cause one to rub shoulders with the public, including of course the police. I was a hostess at De Medici’s down on Ninth Avenue, and that’s a cop joint – oh, you know how turfy they are, especially when they’re obsessed. Like you, I was stalked by a crafty cop whose head was full of ideas, intent on following me from that life into my real life in art. I did what I had to do – my art gave me the strength for it. But you? You did what you had to do, and then you leapt off the Castel Sant’Angelo. Sheer grandiosity, Tosca – you needed only the right lawyer.
But you will say you died for love. Aww! Love, men and babies! You can’t go near any of it if you want a proper studio day and the materials and peace of mind to care for your work, to kit it out for the Silent Land like a Middle Kingdom princeling guiding his gorgeous barque through the Sea of Reeds. Yes, my work is headed for the future, cunningly wrapped and accurately aimed. Oh, look, they’ll say in the future, she didn’t use a camera for that, she just…did it! Oh, man – no one even knows how to draw like that anymore. Nunh-uh, I don’t need to be there to know what they’ll be saying when the lid of the sarcophagus comes off.
I intend to keep on drawing throughout my brief incarceration. And my lawyer – also my employer – has promised that the rent on my studio shall be paid, my archives untouched, my job restored to me. I’ll be no trouble to the criminal justice system, which will hardly know I’ve passed through it, since a simpler, clearer offender would be impossible to find. Why, I’m virtually invisible: a guitar string for a digestive tract, a thickening of the air at the cortex, vertebrae like motel ice, and sinews but the shimmer off hot pavements. I don’t know, exactly, how this has come to be, but you can follow its evolution in the birthday drawings, where there’s no escaping the truth. For the last several years, really, I’ve just been drawing the mirror, because that’s exactly what I see.
This is what happens, Tosca, when you have truly lived for art.
Posted by Elatia Harris at 12:43 AM | Permalink
Thank you 3QD, for providing a venue for excellent short fiction. This one from Elatia Harris is a stunner!
Posted by: Kathleen | Mar 10, 2008 1:26:43 AM
I am am touched, elevated and blown away in the same time, there seems to be no limit in astonishing surprises!!!!!
Posted by: mica hubertus mick | Mar 10, 2008 6:56:46 AM
Mica and Katheleen cannot be bettered on their appreciation of this contribution.
That's the Ponto Vecchio over the Arno river. But, to the left, is that the Excelsior Hotel?
Who painted this beautiful canvas?
I used to stay summers in Sovicille not far from this incredible place.
Keep up the great works!
Posted by: Felix E. F. Larocca MD | Mar 10, 2008 7:27:08 AM
Elatia, thank you. That was magnificent.
Posted by: D | Mar 10, 2008 7:34:14 AM
So beautiful and so disturbing. Maybe Tosca didn't jump. Maybe she was pushed. Elatia, what a wonderful writer you are!
Posted by: Harriet | Mar 10, 2008 11:11:13 AM
Elatia, I covet your beautiful phraseology. "Fingering my air supply" is devastating, and "It’s a very good idea not even to have had a mother" is close behind.
Posted by: Chris Schoen | Mar 10, 2008 3:24:47 PM
Good going, Elatia!
Posted by: Abbas Raza | Mar 10, 2008 3:29:30 PM
Ah, Elatia, you make me forget God!
Beautiful piece. Hold on to that Fabbriano paper. Soon we will be unable to afford it.
But I have a source in the Marche where....
Posted by: Michael Blim | Mar 10, 2008 3:45:15 PM
This is my favourite story I've read from you.
Posted by: alh | Mar 10, 2008 4:38:00 PM
Elatia, I hear the music in my ears as I read your prose. John
Posted by: john altobello | Mar 10, 2008 8:03:25 PM
Elatia: You write so well that you make this ritual of self portraits on birthdays quite interesting. Otherwise I often say to my friends that for me being old became clear when even I was embarassed by my own reflection in the morror. Or as Steve Pinker wrote that clothes were invented so one would always imagine a perfect body behind them. Thanks for being a contributor to 3QD.
Posted by: Tasnim | Mar 10, 2008 9:18:45 PM
Let me just add that a low impact life is way underrated.
Posted by: Ruchira | Mar 10, 2008 11:40:12 PM
"six-foot stack of Fabbriano"
For me it was always Crisbrook Cold Pressed's Siren call, but I feel you.
Posted by: Carlos | Mar 11, 2008 12:21:06 AM
"Quale occhio al mondo
può star di paro
all'ardente occhio tuo nero?
È qui che l'esser mio s'affisa intero.
Occhio all'amor soave, all'ira fiero!
Qual altro al mondo può star di paro
all'occhio tuo nero!"
-or words to that effect.
For the record I was also done in by the riff about the "six foot stack of Fabbriano".
Posted by: Pete Chapman | Mar 11, 2008 4:00:14 AM
There are so few interior testaments from female artists, which was one of the reasons that Mary Gordon's haunting novel Spending garnered so much attention. There is a madness here, the kind that exists from speaking the truth without clothing (love the quote from Steven Pinker BTW, thank you Tasnim). More, more! from she who knows the depths we dive, visually and verbally.
Posted by: Deborah Barlow | Mar 11, 2008 10:47:09 AM
Posted by: Dave Ranning | Mar 11, 2008 5:12:59 PM
Your elegant writing style is not from practice - you are wired differently. Some of us (translation: me)will have to be reborn with more evolved neural synapses even to imitate you.
Posted by: shiban ganju | Mar 11, 2008 8:56:51 PM
Ps. but only with incredible insight and live experience can somebody write like this. I am still amazed !!! Thank you !! XOX
Posted by: mica hubertus mick | Mar 12, 2008 3:36:58 AM
Don’t we always want to know where the artist who makes the world visible truly dwells? Where the lining between these two manifestations rubs and chafes?
Stunning piece, Elatia, dark, scary and funny. I am charmed by your painterly detail, as when the artist gives her artwork the demarcations of the life she deliberately chose not to live:
“Oh, the linen-lined portfolios, the fitted boxes, the meticulously cross-referenced inventories… It’s as if each drawing had a genealogy, a christening dress and a cradle.”
More fiction, please!
Posted by: Judith | Mar 12, 2008 6:35:46 AM
An onrushing, scary stream-of-consciousness on art and life...
Very well done.
Posted by: T | Mar 12, 2008 1:54:08 PM
Devastatingly funny, Elatia, yet it goes down so very smoothly.
Posted by: cathy c | Mar 12, 2008 8:03:34 PM
My dear Elatia,
this is simply glorious. I love the disturbing madness, the eloquence and the gorgeously textured language. The whole piece felt like a mad, rich tapestry.
Posted by: Sughra | Mar 12, 2008 10:17:18 PM
This is fabulous and intricately layered. The grandiosity of the artist, the freedom and loneliness and more than occasional self-pity, the dizzying flares of inspiration followed by the dead-end of self-regard. And even there and through it all: beauty is found and made.
Posted by: OT | Mar 12, 2008 11:25:19 PM
"Simplicity... a transparent life... A life like a pane of glass." what awesome homage to the void. Meet you there -- h
Posted by: holly alderman | Mar 15, 2008 7:46:25 AM
As usual, I chuckled at Elatia's use of irony, marveled at her estoteric knowledge, envied her free-wheeling, sassy attitude, and wanted to stop reading her column and copy some of her imagery and satiric references down on a post-it. But, as usual, I couldn't find my post-it pad, which is always next to my laptop except when I need it...and then I thought I'd use the back of an envelope for scrap paper and write on that, but I noticed that on the front was stamped "Second Notice," so I had to open the envelope, which contained a bill for a subscription to a magazine that notifies me every other month that "It's time to renew,...now at a special rate only...". I then went through my billing system as ruthlessly as Sherman marching through Georgia, and learned that I've paid through 2010, and the latest renewal could take me to 2013. Having settled that little bit of bother by mailing the deliquent bill, I allowed myself to relax briefly, knowing that I'll be getting The New Yorker delivered to this address for the next 15 years FREE...but then the thought of 15 years provoked other questions: Where will I be? What will I be doing? Will the magazine still be around? More important, will I?
Thus, I returned to Elatia's musings on Tosca and her topic this month (or to put it crassly,art as a jealous master) with a less jaundiced eye towards my own slackabout approach to my "art," fiction writing. I wish love did get in the way of my writing, but it's the quotidian details of modern life that have derailed me from my chosen craft, as I deduced from my mini adventure with the post-its. I once hired a personal secretary when I was living and working out of state while my house was undergoing renovation in Massachusetts, but she was messier, more disorganized than I, and cost me just about the same amount of money per hour as I was getting to teach at an elite university. So maybe it's Martha Stewart I really need to keep my life simple and free to pursue my loftier goals. I feel less guilty now--and we haven't even begun to discuss what's in my closets ( I have four closets just for my clothes) or in the attic or garage or basement stroe rooms (Steven King territory for sure).
I have to confess, Elatia, I have always disliked the beautiful and whiney (yes!) Tosca. It wasn't her dedication to her music or whatever nonsense she spouted in that aria ( which I also loathe, and I adore just about everything else Puccini wrote), it was that she came off like one of those sexy up-to-no-good girls in 1940's B movies--a stupid Veronica Lake, if you life--and worse,self-important and self righeous. I'm sure she had no close girl friends either,having no use for competition of any kind since Tosca seemed to me to be the kind of gal who put herself up on her own pedestal--whether for art or her own beauty and admire her own reflection (and voice). Shallow, shallow...
However, two good things I can thank Tosca for: 1)I attended a performance of "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera which was Pavarotti's final time singing on the stage of the Met, and it was one of the most glorious examples of someone who has achieved perfection of his chosen art and also achieved almost universal public recognition; and 2) Elatia's writing this endlessly fascinating riff on Tosca and posting it on the web so I could read it.
Write on, write on--with or without clothes....
Posted by: Ulle | Mar 15, 2008 2:50:17 PM
Even though it's there in front of me in black and white, I swear I don't know how you did that.
Posted by: chris | Mar 16, 2008 6:12:43 PM