I have a small, maroon flip phone, long-detached from any sort of service plan, that lives in a drawer in the study. I took a picture that I love on this phone sometime around 2009, and I have never figured out how to get the picture off of the phone and onto another device. Each time I have embarked on a purge of my possessions over the last decade, I have found myself plugging in this phone, flipping it open to look at the picture, and then putting the phone back in the drawer, unable to part with the image I set as the background.
It’s well composed, if I do say so myself. The top left of the picture is just a wash of sunlight, with rays flooding out and down to partially obscure a series of stone arches surrounding a garden. I took it at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, one of my favorite places in New York. It’s a museum, an extension of The Met, mostly famous as the home of The Hunt of the Unicorn. The cloisters for which the museum is named came in bits and pieces from buildings in France and Spain. They were shipped across the Atlantic and then reconstructed here, an enterprise only someone like Rockefeller would have decided made sense. And so, I have a picture on a phone in Chicago of medieval cloister arches from France that I took in New York.
There are so many ways that we can talk about places, write about places as singular and entirely physical things. So here, I will try something else: It is October and I am in New York with my husband for a wedding. We have an afternoon to ourselves and admittance buttons from the Met, so we come here. We wander the pieced-together, once-sacred spaces, murmuring to each other in museum voices. I tell him that my mother and stepmother came here together once, just the two of them, before I was born. Before my father became an issue between them. I’ve forgotten my camera, so in the courtyard I lift my phone to take pictures.
In books, a place is never just a place. Some people don’t like this, would prefer everything a little more straightforward and a little less symbolic, less weighted down with multiple meanings that go unspoken and unexplained. I am not one of those people, because the way place is represented in books is the way it has always felt to me. In my experience, wherever we go we bring our own set of rooms, add peaks and valleys and shadows the same way we can reconfigure the scavenged remains of European abbeys and set them down over the grass in an American city.
I, for instance, have brought with me to this place two young women with similar coloring who sit together on a bench and admire the Hudson. I have brought a past that feels like it might be mine but that I cannot seem to unlock.
When we write about our own experience of places, we may find that these translucent structures particular to each of us aren’t so difficult to represent, as long as we have done the work of slowing down enough to realize that they exist. (They are incredibly faint and hard to see sometimes). But when we write about people of our own creation, when we write fiction, there’s different work to do. We aren’t just noticing and deciding how to tell what we’ve noticed or experienced; We’re constructing. We’re painting in those faint images and sensations ourselves, layering them onto more concrete descriptions of place and reality.
We don’t just ask ourselves where this person is and what the place is like, we also ask ourselves how the bits and pieces of their life come together to form a ghostly structure over the ground on which they stand. What stone columns from what other faraway lost place arch over their heads as they stand there?
Here is an example: imagine a person at a gas station. As she stands beside her car waiting for her tank to fill, is the smell, the asphalt, the drone of the highway behind her layered with the childhood oasis of a long car trip, of needing to stuff her bare feet into sandals so she can jump out of the car and run inside to walk row upon row of brightly colored, packaged snacks, one of which she will get to take with her, as would never be allowed on a more normal day? Or maybe sketched over her own moment, leaning against her car and looking at the ice cooler by the front door, there’s a child in the backseat gazing out and wondering at the mysteries of adulthood—the punching of buttons and pushing of levers and exchanging of phantom money.
Or maybe he had a geography teacher in ninth grade who spent a lot of time telling her students about how ever since the Exxon Valdez oil spill she boycotts Exxon stations, even if her car is running on fumes and she might not make it anywhere else. And now, whenever he pulls in at an Exxon, he feels a wisp of self-loathing, barely substantial enough to register, but it’s there.
This is what being anywhere is like for a person: a layer of the physical and present with all that is intangible and past. A full-bodied representation of ourselves or anyone else will include this. So, may we give attention to those hodgepodge cloisters we layer over the places we inhabit, and let them do their telling.
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