Each morning I stop and look at the painting of me hanging in the stairwell. I’ve been writing about it, examining its meaning, and entering into a conversation with my younger self at my desk. I thought this would be an essay but it has already taken the shape of a book. A memoir, an interrogation, a mirroring of her gaze, which is not direct but far-seeing. She doesn’t see me but she has her own questions.
Was I passive under his gaze? I was thinking. Is that passive? He was looking at my body, finding the right colours, perspective, and I was thinking. Or taking myself out of the pose and situating myself in the future, in just a month or two, when I would be travelling to Ireland on my own, to a cottage in the Mayo mountains. I was thinking ahead to the life I would be living after this one, never dreaming they were one and the same. (from a work-in-progress)
Up and down the blue lane, arms reaching forward and back, up and down, thinking. Two very vigorous swimmers make waves and water falls over my face like a curtain. I am looking out through water. I am thinking. What did it mean to take off my clothes and stand by a window while J mixed colours on his palette, a few drops of turps, stroked pigment over the gessoed canvas. I read Julia Kristeva.
Head reclining, nape finally relaxed, skin, blood, nerves warmed up, luminous flow: stream of hair made of ebony, of nectar, smooth darkness through her fingers, gleaming honey under the wings of bees, sparkling strands burning bright…silk, mercury, ductile copper: frozen light warmed under fingers.(Kristeva, from “Stabat Mater”)
Some mornings I sit on the stair and look at her. Me. Did I let you down, I ask her, were you afraid of where you were being led as you took off your clothes behind a screen and held the cloth you were handed to drape over your shoulders if you felt cold. If you felt cold, you could have always put on your old brown corduroy pants, the heavy sweater from your father’s drawer (red and black, a Nordic knit). You could have left. But you didn’t.
A paintings conservator who restored this work sent you a screen shot. You had never seen this particular painting though you remember the cloth, the light, the fierce gaze that never left your body. You are there in that moment, the fine cloth draped over your head, you are there as you swim up and down the blue lane, your skin clear and young, your own gaze averted. This was 44 years ago but every morning it is the conversation you have before the day begins. You are recording the conversation and every word matters. There is shame, there is guilt, there are more than a few regrets. You are writing down the words, hoping they will make sense.
Let a body venture at last out of its shelter, take a chance with meaning under a veil of words. (Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater”)