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Dear Anne: 12/21


When I’m traveling alone and with no obligations—just anonymously moving through a city I’ve never been in before without agenda and on my own—there’s usually a moment when I move “inside” the place, which is like what I imagine walking inside a mirror might be like. I am no longer in the place, but of the place. This never happened to me in Turkey because I was on a tour and could only get out of the group and walk through the streets by myself in odd moments before everyone woke up or after everyone returned to their rooms in the evening.


This process of moving “inside” a place usually occurs concurrently with a moving “inside” myself as well, as if I am no longer powerless in a foreign place that is larger and more mysterious than my ability to contain or understand it, but it is suddenly under my control—I am in it and of it and move through it at my own speed. On this trip it happened on my 2nd full day here. I was in the National Gallery and had already gone through the ground floor (recent acquisitions including a collection of mid-19th century photographs and sculptures by Rodin and Degas) and had eaten lunch and began going through the museum’s permanent collection starting in Room 001 on the top floor. There were study aids in each room and I picked up the first one and read it as I went through the room. By the time I reached Room 3, I was tired of standing so I sat down on a couch and read the study guide while looking at the paintings from a distance. And I felt myself suddenly slow down in that familiar way when I know I am beginning to slip into the mirror. As I sat there, feeling the sensation come over me of a cold timelessness, I began to watch the dozens and dozens of people as they hurried past me through the room and into the next one. These people were much more interesting than the paintings and I put down the study aid and began looking at them moving through the museum as a living, breathing, spontaneous artwork. Everyone was an actor in this piece—even the security guards—they made their entrance, related or didn’t relate to the others, moved at different speeds in relation to each other, and sometimes stood in front of the paintings and acted out a pantomime of their reaction to it. And eventually they moved on from this room and had their exits, and were replaced by others making their entrances. After a while I felt I was seeing the museum in a way that was only available to those who knew it intimately, a way unavailable to tourists but only those who’d visited it often enough that they knew how it changed and how it didn’t. Then I thought about what it must be like to be an artwork in the museum, how it first stared out at its creator, and how now everyone was staring in. From then on I couldn’t stop having the experience that I was not looking into the paintings but the paintings were looking out at me.


I’ve been reading a lot of Apollinaire and Pound on this trip. Apollinaire wrote, “Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.” And Pound wrote, “and part gone wrong / And much of little moment.”



[From the author’s Washington D.C. Notebook, originally published in NHS 2006,http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs06/Roark.htm.]