It’s past nap time, but my Californian daughter doesn’t wanna go home.
Why would she? It’s Saturday, so she gets an all-day Mama after 45 hours at preschool. The sun—Mister Sun, to give his formal title—is warming every face, so we have to remind ourselves that our huddled relatives in Limerick, Ottawa, and Michigan don’t need to hear us gush about t-shirts in February. And we are up in Berkeley, which Tara pronounces with three syllables and great delight.
Ber-ke-lee means climbing rocks to throw stones in the creek that runs through campus. Ber-ke-lee means watching students and squirrels orienteering in the eucalyptus groves. Ber-ke-lee means a visit to the library, and maybe her own latte at the Starbucks across the way. Ber-ke-lee means the art and film museum—BAMPFA—where she can apply her member sticker, then run up stairs painted International Orange to order egg sandwiches at Babette, or run down to play with stamps and blocks in the Art Lab below.
Who would want to leave this paradise for car seat straps and a darkened crib?
Not me either. I’m happy to watch her sing Despacito and throw dance shapes in the sunny BAMPFA lobby. Her father is already outside, but through the glass he seems glad to have a few moments of peace.
There’s a new wall of little plywood boxes that I haven’t had a chance to look at. I’ve never spent more hours in museums than this past year, but have to snatch minutes to look at what they show. I sidle over while Tara belts out her song.
TENgo QUE bailAR contigo hoy…
Postcards. Dozens of boxes of dozens of postcards, each printed with a fragment from a Bay Area writer working today, or from their dead literary heroes.
Tú, tú eres el imán y yo soy el metal…
I know that my darling two-year-old needs a grown up to take her by the hand and lead her toward a nap, even though it will wipe the joy off her face and make her screech. But I can’t bring myself to turn away from treasure boxes of printed matter.
The postcards were made in BAMPFA’s Art Lab downstairs. On some the type is set crookedly, and typos have crept in. I don’t care. I feel excited, hungry, greedy. I’m a small girl again, holding a ten pence piece in the penny sweet shop. How many can I get? How long will they let me stay to mull the choices? Where will I go to devour them? And (already, even before I’m led away) when can I come back for more?
There’s a quote from Fred Turner that fits one of my current work projects. I pocket it and scan for more.
Some of the postcards are a single line, others are densely printed. My eyes skitter across the longer ones, or the poetry that doesn’t yield immediately. Later, my mind mumbles, followed by a tinge of shame. My attention, always flimsy, has dissolved in smithereens from years of Twitter’s squirts of dopamine and cortisol. I gulp whatever’s short and easy, and hoard anything harder for a later that will outlive me. It’s Gresham’s Law for base content.
I spot six lines of what looks like prose in red serif on a gray card. That’s more or less my span, so I pull it out. Truong Tran, it says at the bottom, and a recognition stirs. I know that name. Do I?
The hardest part about this or any endeavor—finding the
courage to call it out or claiming it as your art—the hardest
part is that moment in the making when you discover that
you, the maker, are implicated in your own work; that the
work reflects on you—the part of you that is hidden
inside—that you are hiding inside, you hide this inside.
—Truong Tran, from The Book of Others
I skip back and forth around the em-dashes and semi-colons, picking up scraps:
The hardest part…
finding the courage…claiming it as your art…
implicated in your own work…
That recognition again, flickering but excited. Is it a thief’s buzz at finding a fragment that might speak for me, without the trouble of laboring over my own words, or even bothering to read it through? Blah blah my depths are hidden and profound but creating is super hard et cetera.
My reflexes are pure 2018: Snap the postcard, bits to atoms, hashtag BAMFA. Pin it on the wall behind my desk, where it will recede unread. Gulp and display. Next.
Instead, I hold the postcard in a beam of sunlight and read it again. Slowly. Fidgeting. My daughter is still dancing to her own music.
And then he swims into view: Truong Tran, the poet from whom I bought my Eames lounger—how many years ago? Truong, who liked beautiful things, but did not permit himself the luxury of sinking into them. Foster-guardian of the chair I adopted.
I had scoured Craigslist for months waiting for that chair. It would save me, or at least present me as I hoped to be seen, as a grown woman of substance and taste. In a rented apartment, in a temporary city, that chair would become a tiny plot of owned ground, at about the same cost per square foot as local real estate.
I wrote an essay about what that chair meant to me at the time, and titled it The Wishing Chair.
On the way home from BAMPFA, I called up this near-dead blog on my phone and searched for the essay. It was twelve years old, and I’d forgotten most of it. That it was Kevin who drove me to pick up the chair in his truck, and did all the carrying. (Have I seen him since?) That from Truong’s ad, I’d expected an accountant, and encountered a poet. That I was lonely and scared back then, and wanted a chair built to hold me and hug me.
There’s a photo at the bottom of the essay, a reflection in a TV screen from a time before we coined “selfie.” The digital camera and the bulky TV belong in the first decade of this century as surely as the chair comes from the middle of the last.
I’m sitting in the lounger, feet tucked on the ottoman, looking watchful. (Probably just trying to focus.) My neck has a smoothness that I miss now, but the scraped-back hair and sweatpants reveal I hadn’t left the apartment that day. I can cast back and feel that I was sadder than I let myself know, but I don’t remember why.
I’d like to talk to that younger woman, draw her out. It would take a while. Even the silver backpack behind me in the photo was a carapace.
And still: I was writing. Sending words out into the world from that chair. I forced my puny attention to wrestle essays into being, and they became vessels that always took me to places I didn’t expect.
The essays were gradually replaced by Facebook updates, then retweets, and then nothing at all. I deflected any requests for more. I forgot that my Wishing Chairs had always been made by bending words, not wood; and that my wishes could only be crafted, not bought.
Four years after Kevin hefted Truong’s chair up the stairs in Bernal Heights, a big company paid strangers to carry it to my next stop, in Seattle. Five years after that, more movers brought it back to California. When they closed the door behind them, and I was alone for the first time in the first home I’d ever owned, I flopped into the Eames lounger, hauled tired feet up onto the ottoman, and watched baby Tara squirm in my huge belly. How rarely had I ever let myself just sit in that damned chair.
“Was a gift but can not afford to have such luxuries,” Truong had written in his Craigslist posting. Reading it again years later I realize that I’d felt entitled to be the chair’s owner, but not its occupant.
I hear the same austere Craigslist voice in Truong’s postcard poem. I wonder who chose that particular fragment to represent his work at the exhibition, and then read on the back that he selected it himself. There’s a blurred little author photo in place of a stamp. Truong regards me with the same sidelong stare as my own TV photo.
This poem is the art for which he sacrificed loungers and lounging. This art is the endeavor for which he freed himself from the seductive rails of corporate life. These lines are the gift he chose for BAMPFA; for me on a sunny February Saturday in 2018; and for the younger me writing her way out of hiding in 2006.
Do I take it as an admonishment? A tender confidence? An invitation to come back?
I lay my sleepy daughter in her crib, and start to write him back.
BAMPFA, February 3, 2018. Photo by Keith Cormier.