Sketch of the Present
by CATHERINE ENGH
My relationship with my Grandmother began when I was in elementary school. My parents decided that it’d be good for me to spend a few hours after school “doing homework” at her place. She’d feed me a Chewy bar and pretend to listen as I went on about my day at school, elaborating the truth into fiction. With gestures, I’d describe how acrobatic performers had contorted their bodies and jumped through hoops at a special assembly. I’d relate the plots of musicals, inventing as I went along. When it was time to go home, I’d stand in the lobby of her condominium building while she stood on the overhanging balcony. One or both of us would exclaim, “parting is such sweet sorrow!”
When I got my learner’s permit, Eleanor offered to help me learn to drive. What she meant, I soon learned, was that she would let me drive her around in my mom’s Volvo station wagon while she narrated a tour of her “old stomping grounds.” Eleanor grew up in the middle-class part of Alexandria, Virginia, the part of the city where the privileged, mostly white kids who took AP and SAT prep classes with me at Alexandria’s public high school lived. What Eleanor called her stomping grounds, my friends and I called “the hills” — neighborhoods where the streets are named for Ivy League colleges and the houses are spaced just far enough apart from one another for the blocks to feel wooded. There are no sidewalks, few stoplights and the speed limit is a sensible thirty-five.
The Hills made for nice drives. The streets and the houses — like my grandmother — were aged. They’d acquired what the luxury homes on my own cul-de-sac lacked — a character and a past. There was the house where a retired widower crossbred roses and gifted bouquets to the neighbors. There was the home where my great-grandfather Billy saw his wife die of lung cancer and the house, now a mere wing of a much larger one, that my great-aunt sold to Dianne Austen, famous for her popular workout tapes. We passed the dining room where years ago my great-grandfather, Otto, would sit at the head of the table and insist that margarine was no substitute for butter. We drove by the kitchen where Eleanor inadvertently cooked my aunt’s pet guinea pig in the oven; this was the home that my grandfather (a well-known lothario) left when he divorced her. On that street was a steep hill — the source of my Dad’s joke that, as a boy, he had to, “walk uphill to and from school — both ways!”
Other than a couple of years spent in Charlottesville, Baltimore and Nashville respectively, Eleanor lived her entire life in Alexandria. The network of relationships that she cultivated grew and changed organically, without any major ruptures. She breakfasted every Saturday with a fixed group of women who she’d known since high school. Obscure acquaintances of hers popped up in unexpected places: at basketball games, piano recitals and at the local bagel bakery. Authority figures like my principal and my boss knew and asked after her. The enormity of her social network became a joke between my brother and I. With each new friend of hers we met, we’d muse: how many can she possibly have?
Nervous, I run through what I want to say so that when I enter Anna’s office, I’ll feel prepared, hopefully less nervous. I don’t know her very well but she’s friendly, I assure myself. We talked about the Petraeus scandal on the four train, she hadn’t thought the story was very titillating.
“I’m applying to Rutgers’ PhD program in English and it would be really helpful, since I know you studied there, if you would write me a recommendation.” As the words come out of my mouth, they sound bad, too calculated.
She frowns: “Are you going to use this recommendation for all the schools you’re applying to?”
I tell her yes and she sits back in her chair, “Okay, I asked because some students ask us to write recs and then they use them for only one school, which is a waste of our resources. Where else are you applying?”
I stammer that I want to stay in the Northeast and that my top choice is the GC.
“Who doesn’t want to study at the GC? I like to think pragmatically about these kinds of things though. Keep in mind, you’re not going to be able to set geographical limitations when you’re on the job market.”
The German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote in 1939: “Where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with the material of the collective past.” In the same essay, he argues that the rise of industrial capitalism severed experience from local, ritual tradition. Benjamin argues that in a capitalist economy that rewards efficiency, people have less time for boredom and, consequently, less time for experience.
My shopping routine in New York, where I’ve lived for six years, is pretty devoid of novelty—it’s not that there’s nothing new to see, it’s that I don’t see what’s there. I visit the same grocery store twice a week every week and I’ve come to buy, more or less, the same items. I move through the space in a habitual way, starting at produce and making it eventually to the frozen foods. Because I know the store so well—what they sell and where—I observe little but price tags and sale markers. I pass over what I don’t usually buy. I’m unlikely to explore options, to pass some ingredient that inspires me to cook something new. What I do at the store is meet a set of personal needs as economically as possible: I’m efficient, I move quickly. I buy just enough groceries to fit into the two supported bags I have with me and I move on. There’s no time for boredom; the store has become background to whatever present concerns run, unfocused, through my mind.
Buying a coffee across the street from the GC, my eye catches an advertisement in the window. “The Life of the Mind in the Heart of the City” it reads. I remember a friend, a New Yorker, saying he doesn’t understand getting a PhD here. I picture a vague someone, possibly myself in six months, sitting in the library, trying to bring dense philosophy and old fiction to relevance. I imagine trying to think dialectically here where a marching band with the Veterans’ Day parade processes loudly down Fifth Avenue.
On Christmas Eve, my grandmother Martha Ann asks Eleanor how she’s been doing.
Eleanor responds, “It’s been hard, I don’t really know what’s going to happen to me.” Set against her sharp red sweater, her blue-grey eyes look hazy to me, like she’s looking far beyond Martha Ann, who nods sympathetically.
My Dad had tried to prepare me for this. He called in early December to say that Eleanor wasn’t doing well—she had lost thirty pounds and seemed more out-of-it than usual.
“Something happened — she may have had a stroke but no one knows for sure.”
At dinner, Eleanor tells me she wants to do yoga with me. With a dismissive attitude, she adds, “I’ve been practicing yoga at Goodwin House, but they have us sitting on chairs.”
I ask her about it, “So it’s mostly the upper body that gets worked?”
“Yeah, we do arm stretches. They’re swivel chairs.”
Emphatically, I say, “More and more yoga teachers in New York are getting trained to teach kids, the elderly and the disabled. One of the great things about yoga is that anyone can do it, it’s for everyone.”
"I wouldn’t take a class for disabled people because I don’t consider myself disabled,” she says. I remember telling someone earlier that day about how waterskiing is all about the leg muscles. My youth and able-body suddenly feel like an obscene privilege, one that I’m either oblivious to or can’t keep quiet about.
When I hug Eleanor goodbye, I think of alluding dramatically to our old Shakespeare line but I resist, afraid she won’t remember.
In Paris, the closest grocery chain was small. It wasn’t meant to be the one-stop spot for anyone’s entire kitchen and bathroom needs. The Parisian woman who I lodged with went to the local grocery only for packaged goods. There, she bought the kind of stuff I was becoming obsessed with--butter with sea salt, mini goat cheeses, Haribo candies, readymade crème brûlées and patés. She visited separate shops on a more regular basis for fresh foods — the bakery for bread and pastries, the deli for meat and fish, produce stands for fruits and vegetables.
Unless I wanted to live on frozen food for six months, it was going be impossible to get everything that I needed in one place. Shopping at different places was unpredictable: something I wanted was out of season or just not in stock, I needed more time to shop than I planned for. As I became flexible enough to allow the contours of the local shops to guide my plans, I saw an alternative to the mode of consumption that I knew — a city where buying food at massive grocery chains was not the norm, but the exception.
Virginia Woolf, who admired Jane Austen for her ability to capture the ebb and flow of everyday, domestic routines, explains in “Sketch of the Past” that the repetition of ordinary actions is what creates order and continuity in our lives. Though we might not be aware of it, we are protected by repetition — “comfortably covered in the cotton wool of daily life.” To travel or to move, then, must be to be stripped of some or all of the cotton wool, exposed.
Sometimes, I didn’t go shopping at all. I ate what I optimistically termed a salad niçoise — hard-boiled eggs and tuna over lettuce if there was any in the fridge. I tried to cook lentils with carrots and onions but couldn’t get the timing right — I overcooked the veggies and ended up with a bland-tasting brown mush.
I found that there was something that I needed to know — a word, a process, a norm or a custom — to complete basic tasks. I tried to soothe my feelings of loneliness by eating loads of Nutella on baguette, a momentary fix that made me feel worse. I couldn’t find a place to buy adapters for my electronics during the weeks when I wanted to spend my free time on Skype. My sleeping schedule shifted: unexpectedly, I needed several more hours of sleep than before.
When I pick Eleanor up from the same assisted living home where her father died years prior, it occurs to me that she, too, will die in Alexandria. I wonder: did living here exclude her from some vaster world of experience — some deeper understanding of her relation to the cosmos? I don’t ask her if she’s ever wanted to move elsewhere. If she answers yes, the explanation might be fraught; it won’t fit neatly with what I know of her life. Alexandria is where she’s survived and even thrived despite some pretty difficult twists of fate — she was diagnosed with MS in the eighties. She’s always had such a support system here. As far as I want to know, she never considered moving out of Alexandria. I’m the one contemplating a life of thwarted experience.
Benjamin was writing three-quarters of a century ago about what of experience has been lost. But reading him, I plan trips and hope I’ll have the kind of experience that he describes — maybe, away from “the standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses,” I’ll sense the material of a personal and collective past.
On Facebook, I watch a video of a yoga teacher I know practicing acro-yoga with someone in a grassy yard. A beach, an ocean and a sky are in the background. I scroll down and see a friend from high school standing on a glacier, waving an ice pick over her head.
I open a new window and google “writing retreats.” I find a few in the Northeast but learn that I have to apply to the one that looks the best, where Edgar Allen Poe allegedly composed some of The Raven. It’s too late to apply for dates this summer. Other writer’s retreats now pale in comparison to this one. In the past two months, I’ve researched Airbnb locations in Paris, London and Montreal, bought Lonely Planet PDFs for Mumbai, Tamil Nadu & Chennai, Karnataka & Bengaluru.
I’m good at finding reasons not to travel. The friend who I was going to visit India with got an unexpected job offer and had to back out, flights to Europe were cheaper a few months ago, the Google search engine doesn’t yield very interesting results on Montreal. But, really, I guess I just don’t want to travel alone.
The first thing I do is look for the Agnes Martin paintings that I came to see. In college, a professor had shown one of her paintings in class, a square canvas with horizontal bars painted in pale colors — yellow, pink, blue. She had suggested that everyone go to the Dia: Beacon museum to look at her work in person.
“Standing in front of them, I feel calm. This is art for art’s sake,” she had said.
I look at one of the paintings and think: benign, infinity seems to be there on the canvas, beyond a few blue bars. In another room, I stare at a drawing on a wall that looks like a multi-colored topographic map. It’s intricate; it looks like it took a lot of time to create. I like the wall drawings that refer to a plan was difficult to execute.
In the museum blurb for the room, the artist Sol LeWitt is quoted saying: “a portrait is not a person, but a line is a line.” So this is what artists were up to in the seventies, I think. I’m into it.
Catherine Engh is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about Mary MacLane.
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