A Trip to the Museum

I think it was Christopher Penzack who once said, “We’re Witches; maybe we should do something about that,” when discussing some problem that Pagans may have. I’ve always tried to take it to heart.

And so, although what I “should” have done was to work late last night and go put in a good twelve hour day at the office today, what I, instead, “did” was to head out of my office last night to enjoy a great discussion with one of my dearest friends (and a dinner of her husband’s amazing penne a la vodka (nota bene: sample recipe; I think J.’s is better. I should know; I ate three helpings)). And, this morning, I got up, took myself out to Falls Church for breakfast, and went to the National Gallery of Art.

It’s not often that I get genuinely pissed off with the world. But when I do, well, I’m a Witch; I should do something about that. And the past few days, I’ve been pissed off. One of the things I’ve really appreciated: the suggestions in comments and e-mail from my readers about what gets them through rough times. Beauty is one of the things that gets me through and today, I went out in search of that cure.

As I walked into the museum, this lovely temple to beauty, it suddenly dawned on me: I’ve been coming to this place, usually at least once a month (with a few dry stretches: law school, I’m looking at you), for (as of this Spring) fifty years. Half a century. I can find the ghosts of my younger selves by wandering past the pictures that they loved at various stages. That wasn’t really why I came today, but it was what I found.

When my mom first walked us through these marble halls, everything amazed me, but I was most taken by the fountains. Somehow, spending my first five years in Boulder, I’d never seen a fountain. (We had a museum. It had dioramas of Native Americans and dinosaurs. No fountains.) And here they were: fountains! Water bubbling and flowing and spilling. Lots of them, inside, surrounded by light and flowers.

I spent time today at the central fountain, dedicated to Hermes, fleet-footed messenger of the Goddesses/Gods.

Today, there were flowers surrounding the fountain. Flowers that would never, ever, in nature, bloom together: tulips, azaleas, hydrangeas. You might think that, lover of nature that I am, I’d disapprove, but, nope. This is art. I’ve never seen marble shaped like Diana or metal shaped like Mercury, either, but they’re lovely in the art museum.

Later, I wandered into one of the side courts (where there are Sunday concerts) and visited another of my favorite fountains: two cherubs playing with a swan.

Same flowers here, except that there were gardenias blooming, as well. It will be months until my own gardenias overwhelm the garden with the scent of the Summerlands, with the scent that I imagine must precede and surround Aphrodite. I stood next to these hothouse gifts and breathed in the scent for long, long minutes.

And then I saw her: five-year-old me, here for the first time, in her first pair of slip-on (as opposed to saddle) shoes and a dress that her mother made, just moved to D.C. — a startlingly-serious devotee of the Virgin Mary, staring in awe at a statue of angels and a swan, and in communion with the sound that water made inside marble halls. I want to pat her on the head — no I want to take her in my arms, hug her — and whisper to her to never stop looking for beauty, even though some rough things are going to happen to her.

And, so, I do.

A few years later, my parents took us to the museum to see an exhibit of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I remember standing in line for what seemed like forever to me. Mona Lisa’s not here anymore, but I remember the lovely, dreamy background of the picture and I see similar ones in many of the paintings from the fifteen hundreds.

When I got a bit older and my school would take us on field trips to the art museum, I loved (and it’s a sign of how shallow I was and still am; I admit it; sue me) and, still do love, Fragonard, especially The Swing (even then, I think I was planning gardens) and Diana and Endymion.

I sit down on the bench to rest my old bones and there she is: ten year old me, gazing at that picture of happy people in a garden. She’s too serious, I think, now, for a ten-year-old. It already doesn’t make sense to her: this business of having a mind in a body that everyone thinks makes her unfit for a life of the mind. Maybe, she’s thinking, if she tries, if she just applies her mind (!), she can grow up to be a carefree girl on a garden swing. But that’s not likely; Pisces that she is, she’s just as drawn to Diana in the Moonlight, working magic on a shepherd. I want to hold her hand, smooth her brow, give her a talisman that will get her through puberty.

And, so, I do.

When I was in my early teens, I became fascinated with Watteau’s (again with the shallow) Ceres, and bought a cheap reproduction for my bedroom wall (I may have paid 25 cents, back then). I couldn’t have said to anyone what it was about that picture that i liked, but I just knew that I needed it on my wall. I walked over to the picture today and couldn’t find my younger self. But I grounded and left a circle of magical intent for her, just in case she still walks past there, now and then.

By the time I was in my twenties, I’d taken some art history courses and everything that I saw at the museum was filled with meaning!, history!, philosophy!. At that point, I was in love with the Impressionists. I wandered through those galleries soaking in the beauty and the notion that things can change, that just because things have always been done one way doesn’t mean that they must go on that way. I was a single mom, supporting myself and my son on a very meager schoolteacher’s salary, but I found the money to buy another cheap reproduction, this time of Monet’s House of Parliment, Sunset. (The one other bit of art I had back then was a canvas poster of Picasso’s Hand with Bouquet, which will always, for me, summarize the late 60s and early 70s.)

I can see her, the ghost of that young woman trying so hard to be strong, to hold it all together, to still have some kind of interior life while she pours out all that she has for her child and her students. I walk past her, not letting her see me, as she’s so busy projecting that she doesn’t need help from anyone. I want to slip a few dollars into her pocket and send her a vibe that she really is doing quite well, all self-sufficient and hard-working.

And, so, I do.

Finally, I walk to the one picture that I have loved best of all, ever since I was a little girl: El Rio de Luz (The River of Light), which I’ve always called “Morning in the Tropics” (and which, I swear, is once how it was labeled in the museum). To this day, I can’t tell you what it is about this picture that speaks so directly to my soul. No copy on the web does it justice; it’s too detailed and nuanced to be reproduced. If I had to say, I’d say that I like the sense of new beginning that the picture conveys, a new beginning that springs from a ritual performed every single morning for aeons. But that’s not, that can’t be, all of it. That can’t be all that’s kept me — maiden, mother, crone — returning to this same spot, this same bench for half a century. I suppose that, on the day that I can say what this painting means to me, I’ll be ready to dance through the veils. I wouldn’t mind at all if, upon slipping through those veils, I find myself floating on this river of light.

There may be the ghost of a forty-year old woman, trying to establish herself as a lawyer and to live through a diagnosis of breast cancer, standing in front of that picture. She seems to keep standing there a lot, even during lunch hours and brief moments stolen from chemo and writing motions. I walk past her and slip her some jokes that will make her roar with laughter. It’s the best medicine I can give.

I wander over to the East wing and ask the guard where I can find the Antico bronzes. He says to me, “We have an exhibit, Ma’am, but it’s not ancient bronzes; they’re Renaissance.” I say, “Yes. Those,” and he points me in the right direction. And, oh my, there’s a lovely Cleopatra, with a snake carved along the base of her bust and more Herculeses (which even the Renaissance (as well, I’d like to tell my guard, as the ancient) artists were willing to show as, at once, quite muscled and quite middle aged) than I can count. It’s glorious. If you have time between now and April 8th, please go.

I spend time with the Goldsworthy installation. I love Godlsworthy, but, sadly, of all his works, I like this the least. I do like how his rock installations move from outside the museum to inside and, well, rocks. I love rocks. I just wish my city had a Goldsworthy that I enjoyed more.

And then I walk back into the West
(wing) and take myself to lunch at The Garden Cafe, which has a special lunch in honor of the Antico (not ancient, but Renaissance) exhibit. When I leave, the waitress gives me recipe cards, printed with pictures from the exhibit on one side and recipes (I’ll make the bucatini e pancetta if I can ever find good pancetta) on the other. What a great idea! I love it.

On my way out, I stop at the museum shop and find a lovely book about swords (one of his obsessions) for G/Son. They have several good books about castles and life in the Middle Ages that are a bit too old, but I also pick up several plastic figures. The nice lady at the cash register rings up the book, the plastic king and queen, and then stops at my final purchase.

“Nice souvenir,” she says. “Oh, thanks,” I say. It’s for my G/Son. He’s about to be six.” “You’re buying your six-year-old grandson Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the Underworld?” she asks. “Yes,” I say. “Yes. I am. I think he’ll like it.”

And, on my way out the door, I send, not exactly a Witch’s cackle, but the full-throated laugh of an early crone who loves her life, all the way back through the marble halls of the museum and to the half-century-full-of-former-selves standing there.

This Spring, I’m planning to bring G/Son for his first visit.

I didn’t go to the museum today looking for my Younger Self, just for beauty. But I found so much more. May it be so for you.


5 responses to “A Trip to the Museum

  1. Hail! Hail, Hecate! Hail, Hail, Hail!

  2. Thank you, Hecate, for such a poignant walk down memory lane, and all the great art! I enjoyed it all.

  3. I was introduced to Fragonard and Watteau in my first art history course, in college, and have always loved them. Thanks.

  4. I loved going to the museum with you!

  5. This story brought tears to my eyes! I work at an art museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico and there are days that make me wonder, why the heck am I doing this? Your writing rememinded me….

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