The Girl’s Pearl Earring

I have always had an affinity for pearls.  It could be because the pearl is my birthstone.  Or because I once read that it symbolized “tears of joy and sorrow”:  its split personality struck me as both tragic and evocative.  Perhaps it is its silky richness – its delicate decadence.  Or just maybe it is the pearl’s origins – in the belly of an oyster, rooted in its bed far beneath the sea.

Jan Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring” sounds like such a humble thing; yet it is a miracle of color and light. There are no lines in the painting, no harsh borders:  only subtle frontiers that are seen by the mind as much as they are by the eye.  The juxtaposition of texture and shadow is as imperceptible as the descending twilight that softens yet changes the landscape.  The touch that molded her face is as ethereal as gossamer.

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Vermeer painted with light as if it stood in waiting pools on his palette; it is the defining grace of the portrait.  It stretches in blue valleys across the girl’s turban.  It glows like a melted star from her lower lip.  It warms her moon-like face in a hushed, radiant patina.  But most of all, it is the creating force; the central, incandescent life of her pearl earring.

The singular bauble hangs like a dainty planet, stolen from its galaxy and forced to glow in metallic glory by itself.  Softly oval, the pearl’s gentle curves nestle against the acquiescent shadows of the girl’s neck.  Within it is a world of elusive prisms:  silver, brown, gold, lavender, blue.  The colors are stirred together to create an object as warm as an alchemist’s elixir yet cool enough to calm the rich flesh of a young girl.

The girl’s earring must have weighed heavily from her ear – as if it were trying to get her attention.  If she listened, what would she hear?  The painful throbbing of the steel hook that had inelegantly punctured her earlobe – the tincture of rust that now ran through her blood?  Or perhaps she heard something else.  Perhaps she heard the sound of her treasure’s parents: childless, buried at sea and softly crying.

My Imagination

The imagination can be a very mischievous child.  If it doesn’t want to go home, it wanders through the garden, hoping to get lost – if it doesn’t want to do its work, it stubbornly closes its eyes the better to dream.  When it is time to speak, it chooses to be thoughtful…and when it is pulled to safety, it breaks free to drift into the shadows.

But it always comes back with something lovely; so all is forgiven, always.

Does this make me a poor parent to let this child of mine roam so?  An irresponsible one?  Or am I merely indulgent?  After all, my imagination always does return:   its logic is often fanciful – metaphors that have traveled a long, hard road.  But when I am ready, I can embrace its lucid madness, its creative rationale.  And sometimes the art lies in the journey itself.

I was out walking on a particularly shining afternoon, down an unfamiliar street:  so it was already ripe with possibilities.  I passed by a sepia tinted building, empty save for a beige sofa which combined prettily with the Victorian color scheme of the place.  Threads dripped from its back, endangering the tracks of the faint brocade – an aged topiary fading in the strong sunlight.

Inside there were wooden floors and columns of dust were suspended in the air, trapped by the rays of light venturing into the dull interior.  And it was then that I felt a tap on my shoulder – and I knew that it was my imagination, asking me to pause awhile, while it did some benign trespassing.   So I was left there to wait, peering through the smudged windows.

I knew that my better half was wandering through the rooms that lurked in the shadows hidden from the sidewalk.  They expanded like a kaleidoscope – a labyrinth of shapes and angles fit together like geometry that had taken leave of its senses.   I sensed it running its fingers over the wooden walls, across the forests of color and varnish.  It reveled in the grisaille palette of the interior, in the melting grandeur and dusty bowers of the lonely sofa.

When my imagination returned – tousled but exhilarated – it had these things to tell me and more.  We discussed them all the way home.

Sometimes the imagination lies hidden, like an unfinished pearl – yet it is there, content to wait.  It doesn’t atrophy because it has been ignored or unused.  Everyone is accompanied by his or her own frolicking child.  No one  is truly barren.

Her Unusual Gown

The photograph was taken at the most opportune time.  The studio of Professeur Edouard Stebbing had suddenly become oppressive and murky and his subject, the lady with the undulating body, Mademoiselle Paule Morly, would never be the same.

The artists that shouted and theorized in the cafes lining the Boulevard des Italiens – Tortone, Paris, Frascati, Francais – must have noticed it curling between the fumes of coffee and absinthe:  the gray, nautical scent of the ocean.  Even though it was over 100 miles from the coast, the Professeur’s workplace on the Boulevard seemed to rock on invisible waves.

Inside, Mademoiselle Morly had begun to notice the alterations in her dress – but they were not the type that would have been wrought by a seamstress’ fingers.  At first she was annoyed – for it had been chosen carefully for her:  a silk bandage wrapped about her curves, designed to adore her femininity.  But suddenly the fabric had turned chilly and uncomfortable and the folds clutched at her skin:  she felt them moving like currents, like the roaming tides.

The hem that had hobbled her ankles slowly, inexorably, extended into a shoreline of froth; she sensed the green motion ripple around her feet before drifting towards an unknown coastline.  The gown had become a living thing – as real as the elements, as muscular as the sea.  The silk had melted away, yet she was still covered.  But the seams had been replaced by latitudes and longitudes; her gown was no longer silk, but a verdant breath of fog and salt.

Paule no longer wore a crown of glass and paste (valuables were not necessary for a photo shoot, besides, they would not be safe on a Boulevard crowded with strident and starving artisans).   It had been replaced by fluttering tiers of coral, waving a jade invitation to invisible mermaids, deadly on their perches of seaweed and song. It was heavier than her cheap tiara, and her plump shoulders ached, but she did not mind.

She was aware of a tickling down her back – not unpleasant, but alarming all the same, like a stranger’s knowing fingers.  She looked, and saw that her shockingly transformed gown had grown a cape – as thin as an insect’s wings, a delicate membrane shining with jade droplets.  Bemused, she held it between her fingers, to observe the studio light through the delicate tissue.   And it was at this moment of pleasant bewilderment that Professeur Stebbing snapped his picture.

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That was over 100 years ago.  The picture postcard of Mademoiselle Morly has had more than one owner since then.  Someone had lovingly traced the folds of her unusual gown with glue before sprinkling it with green and blue glitter.  And now it is mine.   I don’t think that her image to be accentuated any more – so I have chosen to write about her.

This distant miracle never made the headlines.  Was it too shocking – too unbelievable?  Whatever became of the lady?  Did she disappear – to join the green faces curling out of the absinthe bottles that winked from  the bars of the cafes?  Did she ever travel to the coast – to melt into the water, to join her sister sirens?

No one knows.  And perhaps that is best.

 

 

 

 

The Butterfly I Found

If I hadn’t been observing the ripples and tiny colors in the sand so intently, I would have missed this living cameo, tucked like a golden intaglio in the silica dunes roaming at my feet.

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It was startling to see such an array of brightness and design – interlocking like panes of Chartres glass – so obviously alive yet so still as to give the impression that in all likelihood this fluttering illustration was dead.  The blue eyes, arranged at its edges like a scallop’s, were wide awake and unblinking:  an optic nerve that ran along its border, black-edged like a Victorian mourning card.

I knelt close to it, breathing lightly so as not to disturb the frosting on its wings, spun like stars frozen into the sky.  It was so still and foolish – foolish to think that it could hide behind its static brilliance.  It was as veiled as a sunset.

Within its off-kilter symmetry and cursive silhouette lay a history of art – Beardsley’s line, William Morris’ wallpaper, Klimt’s gold ingots; even Charles Worth’s gowns, ripe with the stirrings of Art Nouveau.

I watched the play of line and color; the rippling of pattern dancing like a silent ballet across its back.  Until I saw the antennae – curling and extending like frantic grace notes, trying to make sense of its cold, unwanted surroundings.

I am not one to leave stranded jewelry unclaimed, but this I left to its recovery:  a bauble that would live to decorate once more the vast and austere sky.

Hunting and Gathering

I think that my life is based on a peculiar anthropology.  Its vague miracles and modest wonders were not found in a manicured garden of curiosities.  They did not grow from seedlings and groomed saplings. I did not wait for them to grow, or to rise yawning, from their fragrant beds. I did not cultivate them out of confidence, or the expectation of what such a harvest could bring.

Instead, I hunted.  But my cache of weapons does not include guns or arrows.  I do not need to destroy in order to make my life remarkable.  Rather, I hunt with my eyes and my mind; making sure that I’m always accompanied by that map of whimsy and caprice, the imagination.  I hunt for what is hidden, for what lurks – for what waves its banner of lively beauty before disappearing, forcing me to give chase if I was quick enough to even notice.

And then I gather what I’ve found.  It might be thought that my yield is an unpretentious one…but to me they create a pattern of worthies which keep me warm throughout the year.  A sunset that melts like gold silk; birds that fly in a in a filigree of panic and hunger; autumn leaves the color of kitchen spices; the eyes of a 1905 beauty staring at me from the bottom of a box of sepia photographs; a statue of three sheep dancing the can-can – carrying a bouquet of orchids that someone had placed in their dainty, flamboyant hooves.  How thankful I am for that unknown person’s fey creativity.

Did You Think I Was Kidding?

Did You Think I Was Kidding?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These memories hang about me like jewelry heavy with charms:  I can stretch my arms out to watch them dance in the light once more; I can finger my neck to feel the decorations that hang there.   Like the richest of quilts, they keep me serene and content in the knowledge that I wear as fine a blanket as any that the nimble-fingered Fates could have woven.

So in a way I am a nomadic throwback:  a hunter and gatherer.  I’ve grown beyond the limitations of farming and its irksome patience.  Instead, I range far to bring home what memories I find:  to admire, to appreciate and to embrace all of their attendant joys.

Happy New Year

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When New Year’s Eve makes its attack

See that you have your outfit down pat;

Make sure that you wear something dashing and black

Think on the old year, its memories and then…

Be thankful you’ll never see it again

Aubrey wishes all of her invisible friends a Happy New Year.

Be creative. Be nice. Dress well. 

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The Christmas Book

When I was around ten years old, I wanted a book for Christmas.  Now, this would not have been unusual – what was unusual was the title that I wanted.  I don’t know in what obscure catalogue or commercial I first saw it; I don’t know in what forgotten library shelf I first noticed it, beyond the reach of my pining, prying hands.  In short, I have no idea when or where I first desired “Audubon’s Birds of America (Popular Edition)”.

There was something in the evocative life of the illustrations:  they went beyond scientific exploration, Latin phraseology and charts of migratory behavior.  What I saw were the clear oceans full of ice; snakes and lizards under attack from angry parental beaks; disemboweled mollusks; empty shells scattered across beaches like chilly jewels.  Every plate invited the type of reflection that only a 10-year-old story-teller would appreciate.  I wanted to look into the sepia horizons, to absorb them, to drink in their heady secrets.

I coveted this book.  And yet…I did not tell anyone about my Christmas desire.

Now, in those days, my brother and I had our own Christmas trees in addition to the family tree, waiting our Christmas attack with glittering trepidation, needles shaking to the floor in fear.  Whether our little trees were true, false or flocked, I don’t recall – but I do remember the Christmas Eve from this particular year.

It was late.  The light in my room had dimmed to charcoal, and through my eyelashes the tree and surrounding furniture showed mountainous and black.

And then I heard them.  Footsteps.  Surely my chance had some – surely I could even now hear the boots on the floor?  Smell the cookies and snow?  Why could I not finally see the Saint himself – and the lovely tiny reindeer stamping impatiently outside?

But I was so scared.  I shut my eyes.  And seconds later – or so it seemed, as it does to every child – I was awake, joyous in the bright morning.

I ran to my tree and there, amongst all the other – now forgotten – gifts…was my book.

I have the book in front of me now, and while not looking particularly spectral or ethereal, it does have the decades-old cache of being steeped in magic.

Its cover is a fey design of interlocking feathers.  Inside is my signature – aggressively curvilinear – and a yellowing book-plate with the eternal declaration, “A book is a new adventure”.  Its edges are soft and frayed, and the pages smell dense and delicious.

I had no explanation for its delivery.  Nor did I really want one.  The drama and wonder of that morning remains a splendid memory; and when I turn the pages of my book – the Great Auk is a particular favorite – the glorious confusion seeps into my bones once more.  Further explanations would be gratuitous.

I do hope that your holidays are filled with such gentle mysteries.  And should time or chance force you to leave them behind, may they still live in your mind, to keep you as warm and content as mine have.

Thanksgiving Starts In September

It all started in September.
I was marketing with the Boyfriend, and at one point I stopped in mid-aisle to exclaim, “Where are the roasting pans?  It’s late September!  Where are the cranberries?”
You see, with the beginning of September, the first of the blessed quartet of 3-syllable months, my mind will turn to Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving, and all of its lovely panic-strewn preparations.  Thanksgiving, the fear, the food.  Thanksgiving and butter.  Thanksgiving and the only marathons that count – the ones on TV.
Now, previously, the holiday would either be a restaurant meal, where one could not ask for seconds, or ask why the gratinee on the potatoes was so flimsy.  (Such a crisp, cheesy roof should be in danger of crushing the entire building, for goodness’ sake.)  And if not at a restaurant, the other Thanksgiving alternative would be one at a relative’s or friend’s home – there, seconds would be available (possibly encouraged, depending on the friend/relative).  But there  one would pay for one’s boldness by helping to Clean Up.  Both of these meals would be full of thanks to be sure, but they would also last only a few hours: a mere nibble out of the year.  For me, when Thanksgiving is in someone else’s hands, the celebrations are always far too brief.
So, years and years ago, I decided to have the meal at my apartment.   And this brought about a paradigm shift in my perception of Thanksgiving.  Between shopping, cleaning and cooking, my prep work begins in October.  And I will begin to sniff around for new recipes in September (doubling my annoyance with the Halloween menus on the covers of all the cooking magazines.  What’s to plan?  Give me – or anyone, for that matter – a a vat full of Heath bars and I’m happy).
I trust the people I invite, so I use the good silver.  Fashion-shaming could make people uncomfortable, but I invariably will greet them at the door wearing a tiara and petticoats, but I mean no harm – so everyone gets a corsage or buttonhole.   Oh, and the secret handshake, obviously.
So, it is therefore safe to say that my Thanksgiving lasts for 3 months.  As a result of this elasticization of the holiday, of this metaphoric conversion into an easy-fit stretch band, I will be sore, weak, and often ill from being maid-of-all-work for such a distance of time.  My sciatica will be erupting.  But it is still glorious.
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Now, I hope this won’t frighten people away from Thanksgiving.  Because no matter how you choose to celebrate this peculiarly American and hedonistic day, please make sure that you do.   For this day was not made to be joyless.

Walking Through The Poppies

Flower collapsed and defeated
Crushed in curling despair
A scarlet splash
That once grew from a distant wreath
Resting against a foreign plinth
Begging one to remember
A bright and bloody symbol
That told a story
Of thunder and tanks
Of Flemish mud grown thick with gore
Of barbed wire that wore tattered flesh
Like fabric swatches
A smeared cruel banner
Rooted in honor
A dying icon
A forgotten call to arms
Trampled and silenced across the heel
Of a discarded shoe
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Searching The Sky

Irene Rich stands like a subdued bride.

She holds a silken bouquet behind her, drooping yet hopeful. The coat she wears is of white mink, and there are three rows of severed tails at the hem, decorative and barbaric.  Hidden shoes – satin, undoubtedly, with curving Cuban heels – tap the floor with delicate impatience.  The floor bearing the brunt of Irene’s disquiet bears the terse design that typifies the beginnings of Art Deco.

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The photo must therefore date before 1925, before L’Exposition Internationale Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.  This was Paris’ months-long introduction of the new symmetries to a world still dreaming in the Ophelia-like embrace of Art Nouveau.  The old sentimentality and weak femininity had expired on the killing fields of Europe and the Middle East, and in the choking factories of the home front.

Irene has not cut her hair – not yet – but the curls have been piled into a soft volcano, until neck, back and shoulders show white and bare, an anthem to the new exposure of the 1920’s. She is not a beauty – there is a thickness to the neck, and a suspicion of fullness to the torso which might have been harbored within a corset in her younger days.  For Irene was born in 1891 and her body would therefore have known fashion’s shackles as well as its liberation.  She would be in her late 20’s when she stood for this photo and an actress for almost 10 years.  Later she worked in talkies, in radio, on the stage.  Her acting career would span three decades.

But Irene had another career, albeit a more emotional one. She had a marital calling; one that was more lengthy than her dramatic one.  Her first marriage was in 1909, a pre-emptive jump to the altar to presumably escape the plans of boarding school which her parents had for her.  One daughter and two years later, she divorced.

There quickly followed another wedding, in 1912. The end of this marriage led to Irene seeking work in the new frontier of Hollywood in order to support her family.  This fortuitous decision would promise that bauble in southern California a future of selfish hostesses, gallant frontierswomen, and strong-willed housewives.

When this curiously bridal photograph was taken, Irene stands waiting for her third husband, whom she would wed in 1926. Once more, it would not last long.  But finally, in 1950, she married a New York business executive; a union that lasted until the end of her life, in 1988.

But shortly before this final, stolid relationship; there was one more – a volatile and deadly one.

In 1949, secretary Agnes Elizabeth killed her employer: politician and business owner John Edwin Owen.  According to the sheriff’s report Garnier shot Owen and blamed Irene Rich for coming between them.  According to Garnier’s story the gun had gone off accidentally, as she took the gun from an intoxicated Owen as he was going to bed.  Rich claimed an innocent friendship, Garnier plead innocence.  In the end, Garnier was convicted of manslaughter, serving one and a half years out of her “one-to-ten” year sentence.  And Irene by then was very happily married.

I had found Irene some time ago, I forget where. I was taken with her face, her slightly debauched cloak, her sprite’s modesty.  So I bought her and framed her, and so she has hung in sepia glory in my hallway for many years.  Her photo was one of a few that I own where the image comes with an autograph – a key ready-made for any owner to use who is willing to research the past of a new possession.

So I had only recently decided to find where her name led me: a history of unions – most unsuccessful – one calamitous relationship based on conflicting stories, explanations and affections…and a body of work in television and radio which led to her two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

In a way, I think, such research is like looking into the sky – the things that suddenly come into view when you look into vistas that most people will ignore.