|A low-res image transferred from a slide–
my only known record of this piece.
It was the grad-school apartment of my dreams: the second story of an old brick residence with silver radiators, gorgeous molding, and the only balcony. I wrote my thesis poetry on that balcony, in the humid Greensboro evenings, feet up on the railing. When it got too dark to write, I’d return inside and paint by clip lamp.
During my second year in the writing program, all of the tenants in my building were women. Below me, lived a fellow student poet. Above me, an undergrad cellist. Across the hall, an uptight saleswoman, and below her, the most interesting of us all: Sylvia. No one knew exactly what Sylvia did, nor her exact age. Plastic surgery had probably occurred. She dressed in mid-century clothing, and we guessed she was in her late sixties, though she dyed her hair jet black and teased it into an immobile beehive. Every weekday evening, just after five, she took the bus back home from her unnamed job. Often, she would emerge from her apartment an hour or two later, with a fresh smear of red lipstick, carrying a patent leather purse and wobbling on heels down the swath of steps below the wide front stoop. From my balcony perch, I found myself holding my breath, hoping that she wouldn’t fall.
One night, I took my trash out to the dumpsters behind the building, where it was always dark enough for murder. I passed Sylvia and said “hello.” She said “hello” back. I dumped my bag and heard it thump—twice. Strange.
I headed back around the hedge-lined side of the building and almost tripped over Sylvia. She had been the second thump; she’d fallen stomach-flat on the walk.
“My nose, my nose, my nose!” she chanted, her hands flapping at the space around her face.
I helped her up. “Are you OK?”
“Is it bleeding?”
I could just make out a middle glisten between her bright black eyes.
Sounding congested, she replied, “I had a nose job years ago, and I landed full on it! I’ve come up that path a thousand times, a thousand times!”
I helped her to the front stoop and into her apartment. I’d never been inside. She headed for her bathroom, and I noticed that our places were mirror images of each other. But her hallway was hung with empty frames—old gilty ones of varying thicknesses and quality. Above them hung the only filled frame: a portrait of Sylvia.
I froze. I felt goose bumps lift from every pore as I remembered a dream I’d had the night before. I had dreamt of her hallway—that I’d never seen—lined with the empty frames I was gaping at now.
And that very afternoon, I had come inside from my balcony to escape the heat and paint. Strains of a Bach cello suite filtered through the ceiling. I pulled out a large sheet of paper, and something new happened: with my first dozen strokes of black paint, there was Sylvia, leaning forward and looking down like she did when descending stairs, always wary of falling. I added a quick patch of cadmium red for her sweater. Done. I stood back. I’d been painting women for years, but never a particular woman. Never a recognizable one. I called my downstairs neighbor, fellow poet, to come up. The minute she walked in, she said, “You’ve painted Sylvia.”
And now, there I was, helping the woman I’d painted into my car, driving her to Moses Cone Hospital.
I barely remember the short trip, just that she offered me $5 for the favor, and I refused—and then she refused to let me wait for her. She smiled, hand to nose, and waved me off.
Though I saw her coming and going over the next academic year, we didn’t mention her fall. The next spring, I moved. I never saw her again.
A dozen years after that brief time in the South, I found myself attending a school of supernatural ministry in northern California. That is another story altogether. I attended because I had heard the curriculum incorporated art into its spiritual practice. I studied in the prophetic art track and began doing spiritual “portraits” of fellow students and eventually at the annual conferences. When I left, I created my own prophetic art curriculum.
I had completely forgotten the piece that started it all: my portrait of Sylvia. It wasn’t until I was going through old slides recently that I found her portrait. When I held that slide to the light, the hubris of my early twenties returned—how I had thought I was completely different than Sylvia because I worked in the esoteric world of poetry and never had a nose job. Now I see that we both know what it is to fall headlong into our lives, to break back open what we hoped had healed.
But here’s the strangest thing I didn’t see until just this moment, right as I’m thinking I’ve brought this story full circle. These days, I write standing in the stairwell of my little loft. If I stand part way up my stairs, I can use the half-wall bookshelf at the top as a stand-up desk. Resting my eyes, I turn and look down my hallway. A few months back, I hung half-a-dozen empty frames on the wall. Though I’ve seen similar decor many times since the night I stood in Sylvia’s apartment, I know the idea formed while waiting for her wipe the blood from her nose. Waiting for myself to paint my own life portrait as a writer and artist.
The realization makes my legs shake. I sit down on a stair, somewhere between the top and the bottom, between my understanding and my complete lack thereof. I lean against the wall and smile.
Here’s to us, Sylvia. May the angle of our leaning be sweet.
My little poem from long ago came out to play in DASH:
Paris, Night, Love Letters
To be specific: an apartment on the Île Saint-Louis just after dark and letters written by hundreds of women years ago to a man they did not know.
My friend Christina and I have arrived to this gem of an apartment for a literary salon dedicated to these letters. The evening is hosted by a 21st century Gertrude Stein. An American in Paris, “Gertrude” gathers global philosophers, artists, and writers to fill her rented living room and engage in expansive dialogue.
Tonight, the dialogue is led by the letters’ recipient. A Parisian artist, he tells us he will be creating an installation with the missives once addressed to him care of Marie Claire, in whose pages he’d been featured as an eligible bachelor. The letters were hand-written—in an era before the prevalence of texting and email—and the salon discussion traces the morphing shape of desire through the ages, fueled by pastel macaroons and Champagne with a capital “C.”
As the night progresses, the discussion heats up, and I wind down with the help of jetlag and a fading sugar rush. In the back of the room, I nod off, dreaming that Paris writes me a letter.
I would expect Paris to write a gray and rainy letter in the spring. But this week, she’s using blue-sky paper and puffy, white-cloud ink. After dreams of quills and inkwells, I wake up in our not-so-gem of an apartment in the 12th Arrondissment feeling inspired and hopeful. After a café au lait, I feel inspired, hopeful, and ready to reply to Paris, preferably after a trip to the patisserie.
Christina and I begin the long walk toward the Seine. We pause at Notre Dame with croissants before crossing over the Pont au Double to Shakespeare and Company. She takes me upstairs, past the inviting spines of books and uninviting signs prohibiting cameras, to show me the room where she and Gertrude have taught writing classes.
|Upstairs of Shakespeare and Company
But I get distracted. There, squished in the narrow, upstairs hallway stands a tiny booth with a chair, table, and typewriter. The booth’s ceiling is just high enough for someone to sit upright.
A single sheet of blank grid paper curls out of the typewriter carriage. I accept the silent invitation and squeeze my 6’3” self into the little booth—not much harder than squeezing around the bathtub where we’re staying.
I type “Once upon a time,” but there is no ink left on the ribbon. I lean forward and can just make out where the keys hit the paper’s grid lines. Then I scan up the page. Goosebumps run down my arms. Another, inkless writer typed a phrase just before my own: from Morocco, with love.
|Typewriter Booth at Shakespeare and Company
|Of course, the letters are invisible unless you hold them about six inches away from your face. I pull the sheet from the roller and show her.
She looks at the paper, then at me. She smiles. “I think that’s a good sign.”
We are on our way to Morocco to teach a travel-writing workshop.
I pull out my smart phone, whispering, “This isn’t technically a camera, right?” I take a picture of the typewriter.
And I take the prophetic slip of paper with me.
|Roofline of the Fez Medina
If Morocco were to write me a letter, it would smell like the tanneries, taste like date milk with orange blossom, feel like cool zellij tile around a fountain, sound like the evening call to prayer, and look like a donkey.
I should say: that’s if the city of Fez were to write me a letter. And Fez writes everyone a different letter. Mine went something like this:
They say you should not have expectations when you travel. I disagree. Here are a few suggestions:
Expect small children to point at you and old women to frown.
Expect men to accost or ignore you, depending on whether they believe (and hope) in the Muslim stereotypes of Western women or whether they are good men with wives at home.
Expect to start craving lamb-and-prune tagine cooked for hours over coals.
Expect to wonder what the woman thinks, sitting all day draping crepe-thin dough over a domed grill.
Expect to see the street drains run with the color the dyers are using the day you walk past, trying to keep your shoes from turning blue or black or red.
Expect to wonder whether the donkey feels the rash his saddle has caused or if his raw skin has gone numb.
Expect moments of delight in the shape of golden leather babouches that fit your large feet, and expect moments of despair when cheated of dirham in the idiosyncratic business of bartering.
Expect to feel a sense of timelessness when you stand on a riad rooftop, looking out over a city that has hardly changed in a millennium—except for the satellite dishes.
Did I say expect? I meant anticipate.
PS: Best babouche prices at my uncle’s shop!
|Fountain with Tagine, Riad Zany
The people in our writing workshop each receive their own welcome “letter.” One woman’s letter smells like the bright kitchen of Café Clock where she takes a cooking class. Another letter is addressed to both the woman and her late husband—they had once looked for a carpet together here. She finally finds one.
On the first night of the workshop, all of us recipients gather together for dinner in the courtyard of Riad R’Cif. We share our invisible letters over revolving courses of bright vegetables served in small dishes.
After a dessert of dates, musicians show up unannounced to fill the riadcourtyard with percussion and blasts from horns the length of a tree. The evening ends as any, slightly self-conscious and anticipatory gathering should: with music and dancing.
We are ready to start writing our replies.
Morocco, Days and Days, Wordsmithing
|Terrace of Scorpion House, Moulay Idriss
The week becomes words. Words spoken, written, wrangled. Words between people, place, and time. Words sweet and spicy as oranges dusted with cinnamon. Words dark as unlit alleys at the base of steep houses. Words gathering like storm clouds and growing heavy enough to spill across pages and screens.
The workshop ends with a reading at Scorpion House in the holy city of Moulay Idriss. Almost everyone shares what they’ve written back to Morocco.
I am not ready yet.
Western Sahara, Always, Destiny
After the workshop ends, I travel with Christina and one of the workshop participants, Sid, to Erg Chebbi—a cluster of buildings on the lip of the Western Sahara. From our hotel terrace, we can walk across a bit of hardscrabble, pass a line of palms, and stand ankle-deep in warm sand within minutes.
We’ve brought our sunglasses and poetry collections. We’ve also brought a couple of overlander Spaniards Christina found along the way. We ran into them two days in a row, while stopping for lunch on the road from Fez. The two friends—both named “Juan” and dressed in Safari gear—have loaded their Land Cruiser with Rioja and carry it discreetly around this conservative country in a goatskin canteen.
|Dos Juans, Christina, Sid and I, with Land Cruiser
After dinner, Sid pulls out his bilingual collection of Pablo Neruda, and Dos Juans solve our poetry reading problem. With bottles of Volubilia Gris, we sit on the terrace of Dar el Janoub and take turns reading the poems in Spanish and English.
Later, as night deepens, we walk out to the crest of a dune to watch the stars. Sid quotes an ancient Urdu ghazal:
What is the second step of desire, Oh Lord?
Already with the first step,
I have reached the desert of possibility.
“Destino,” one of the Juans says.
Nothing, says the other, as he walks out into the night.
And then there is silence for an eternity, because nothing more can be said there, in the place of every possibility.
Western Sahara, Dawn, Desire
I keep waiting for a letter from the Sahara—so unlike Fez, who’d slapped one to my forehead upon arrival.
When dawn shoots across the dunes the next morning, I am already walking toward the sun, ready. I stand still.
I begin to ask aloud if I am missing something, but as I do, I hear the desert start to speak—to write—through me.
It is a brief but lifelong letter, and I sign it in the cinnamon sands with the valediction I’d already received: from Morocco, with love.
When I look up, the desert’s letter rises all around me—dune after dune in every direction; I’ve walked until I can see no other horizon but sand.
Here dwells what the women in France had wanted when they wrote to a man they didn’t know.
Here are no words and all words.
Here is the heart of every letter: the desire to connect—across humanity, landscape, and time—with something greater than the one writing.
I walk up the curving road,
past vineyards and paddocks.
The straight, dawn light cuts
I remember someone I’d just
met the last time I walked here,
long ago. Someone I could barely
see in the glare of the new.
The morning collapses into contrast:
chiaroscuros of telephone pole,
shaggy ancient olive trees,
Only far from her zenith can the sun
make such angled work of light.
Do we choose the wrong one
before the sun magnifies it.
I stop beneath an oak. In the bowl
of a field stands a blond mare.
The dawn side of her shines,
the other waits in blue shade.
I decide: sides are for fences.
But I am willing to be wrong.
I step from the graveled shadow
into the sun. The wise light
hits me with a fist of yes
My article on prophetic art appears in the Summer 2014 issue of CFN’s The Voice magazine. To read it, click the image or click here.
|The Islamic holy city of Moulay Idriss, Morocco
This poem is forthcoming in the October issue of Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine. I will include a direct link when it is released.
|Roofline of the Fez Medina, Morocco
For Ali, who explained my name to me
In Arabic, my name means I.
So I surrender to the collective self—
I in the souk selling oranges
I in the café filled with men
I in the tannery lifting skins
I in the child kicking a faded ball
I in the man pointing to a pastry
with a bee stuck in sugar.
I in the petit-taxi holding out
a creased hand for coins.
I in the woman rubbing cheese
onto squares of fry bread.
I in the singers with blank faces
I in the shepherd telling the sheep
Now, the world turns ana—
I am the river running beneath
I am dunes, pink in evening.
I am the sky above them as night falls.
The sky—wider than lives,
spacious enough to hold every hand
and turn each finger to a star
that points all I’s home.
Happy Poetry Month! In celebration, here is a little poem that appears in the April issue of the Jacksonville Review. (Click the screen shot to see a larger version.)
My essay “Of Danger and Beauty” won a 2014 Best Travel Writing‘s Gold Solas Award: Adventure Travel
Following are my own photos of the trip:
|Dawn View of the Dead Sea from the Masada
|Shoreline of the Dead Sea with Thermal Pools
|Dead Sea Salt Formations
|Kibbutz Bomb Shelter
|Canyons for Camping
Calling artists near and far! What if a piece of your art could help rescue a victim of sex trafficking? It can. “Artcert,” an annual art auction and concert, will be raising money this year for the relief organization Compassion First.
“From numbers to names,” Compassion First “provides life-giving solutions to child sex-trafficking survivors.” They are “specifically committed to serving in countries that do not already have a strong, Western, nongovernmental organization (NGO) presence in the area of anti-trafficking work.”
Interested in contributing to this vital cause? Artwork needs to be dropped off/received by March 10th at: Living Waters Church, 2200 Roberts Road, Medford OR, 97502. (Office hours: Mon-Wed, 9-12 and 1-4)
On a related note, I’ll be teaching a prophetic art workshop called Eyes of the Heart. A portion of the proceeds from the workshop will go toward the Anthem students at Living Waters Church, who will be traveling to the Indonesian branch of Compassion First to help rebuild the shelter for girls saved from sex trafficking.
Come spend February 22nd discovering prophetic art. Not only will you be stepping forward into your own creative destiny, you’ll also be helping young girls step into theirs.
You can register through the Eyes of the Heart link at annaelkins.com.