Bali-Ha’l, that special island?
When my mother first introduced me to the Umbrellas of Cherbourg as one of her favorite movies, she supplied a large, missing piece of her identity: she really did feel that life should have a soundtrack. Was it from seeing too many musicals on Broadway during her maturation, or was it just her flair for the dramatic? Even though she has been dead for two years, if I am very quiet I can still hear her humming a few bars from South Pacific. Growing up to the strains of Bloody Mary, Do-Re-Mi, and As long as He Needs Me engendered a certain sense of whimsy and flightiness in my world view, which in turn led to a life of disconnectedness to people as a whole, if not to out and out cognitive dissonance. I’m sure if I met Gigi or Oliver on the street where they live(d) I could have struck up a conversation or duet with only minor discomfort. But my real encounters lacked substance and I seemed to waft toward adulthood. Becoming an art historian (the major of countless, lost blondes) I found a medium to which I responded from the head, heart, and hand. And one can ask no more of life than that.
But here’s the rub. In lieu of mother’s soundtrack, I became the victim of a parade of images to accompany my thoughts, my actions, and perversely, my inactions. What a rich inner life, you say, but there is a real drawback to this intrusion of visual stimuli. I would envision Goya’s Sleep of Reason before each exam; a hell scene from Bosch if I veered from the course of righteousness; Delacroix’s watercolors from Morocco floated before my eyes under the influence of marijuana; while images from Van der Weyden’s Beaune Last Judgment transported me in times of spiritual seeking. And medieval art? Everything about this long period of art history spoke to me, from the early Christian sarcophogai (I am the arch Early Christian martyr!), to Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts in their endless intricacy, to the sincerity of Romanesque capital sculpture in France, and finally to the Gothic period with its courtly elegance, its numinous manuscripts and sculptural ensembles, and of course, the cathedrals that challenge the imagination with feats of soaring height and skeletal frameworks. When I wrote a letter, I felt compelled to parse out the words between illustrations. Art history books became grist for my thinking, writing, and dreaming. Imagine if you will Fuseli’s Nightmare and you approach the intensity of my entrapment.
I tried to quiet the images, especially when in mixed company, in other words, with other human beings—always hoping I would meet someone who suffered from the same dis-ease. Eventually in graduate school I developed a friendship with a man in the same field, whose love of medieval art was palpable. We remained friends throughout the labor pains of writing our respective dissertations, through orals, through each failed relationship. It was only after years of this dance that we realized what others knew from the beginning. We married (think Chagall) and took turns keeping each other’s career back. Finally, he got a teaching position at an Ivy League school, and I was no competition for those hallowed halls. By then I had given birth to a rosy little girl and though devastated, I needed to find a teaching position for the intrepid duo.
I landed in a Liberal Arts College in the south. Living and teaching in the deep south is like living in a foreign country for someone from the north. It plagued me that my daughter would grow up with a southern accent! But it was a wonderful place to heal and that I did. One morning I was driving my daughter Lily to childcare, guilt dripping from my brow, when her eyes met mine in the rear view mirror and she said “you know, I’m living by my wits alone.” Though I managed to get the car back on the road before I hit any stationary objects or people, I was in a total state of shock. When we got to our destination and I released her from the prison of her car seat I asked her what she meant by that. She just looked at me and smiled knowing.
A couple of mornings later, I went into Lily’s room to awaken her for another busy day at childcare central. When she opened her eyes she said “Salutations!” I asked her if she knew what that word meant—and she said “of course! it is just a fancy way of saying hello!” Now I’m beginning to think that my daughter is a genius or that she is reading late at night after I collapse. It was only a week later that she informed me that “humble” had two meanings, one that meant not proud and another that meant close to the ground, just like Wilbur; finally I realized the source of Lily’s deep font of wisdom. Her affection for Charlotte’s Web knew no bounds, whether in book, film, or comic strip. There are few better thinkers than Charlotte in my book—and what a heart.
I had another realization that week. Just as my mother lived to an inner soundtrack and I lived to a pictorial slide show, my daughter was to live to her own melody: the pearls of wisdom that fell so close to Wilbur were only the beginning of insights gleaned from great writers, which would inspire and foster in Lily a just and nuanced worldview. What a lovely legacy.