Here’s my question. How do we keep doing this—making art? My question can be understood in two ways: what keeps us alive in our art, on what do we draw, year after year and project after project, to keep doing this? And, in what manner do we keep doing this? How do we change the way we do this, if we do?
I began thinking about this question in 2010, as I was working on my fourth novel. I wrote a little essay about it for The Rumpus, and in 2014 I signed a book contract with Graywolf on this subject, and then, for a variety of reasons, I took forever writing the book. I am still writing the book. I began writing the book with the idea that I would interview amazing older artists and writers and they would tell me how they did it and I would be guided and enlightened and I would pass on to readers what they told me in tidy, exquisite essays. However, it took me so long to write this book that I myself became older. Not as old as the amazing older artists and writers, and certainly not as amazing, but old enough. Old enough to understand how deeply unanswerable my question is. Old enough to know that the art that we make makes us in return, for better and for worse. And what does that mean? What are the consequences? And why would anyone tell me about the profound connections between the life and the work, even if they could articulate them? One quite amazing older woman artist snapped at me over email, “I don’t give out details of my personal life, as it has little do with my work.” To which I thought, Oh, come on. But I also thought she had a point, in the sense that I was asking people to narrate their soul’s journeys, and that’s a very, very personal question, in addition to being impossible. So I put myself in the book, my own long run, and I took what I hope is a big step back from making definitive statements about anyone’s life, including my own.
Here are just a few of the people I’ve met.
The dancer and performer Valda Setterfield came from England to New York in 1958. She was twenty-four. I interview her, at eighty-seven, on Zoom, because it’s the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, even though she lives fewer than five miles away from me in New York City. Born in 1934, she grew up in Westgate-on-Sea, in southeast England, near Dover. She had had a haphazard dance education, mostly focused on ballet, when she arrived in New York to study with modern dance innovator José Limón. She danced with the James Waring Company from 1958 to 1962. She married fellow dancer and choreographer David Gordon in 1961; they have a son, Ain, born in 1962. Around this time, she began taking classes with Merce Cunningham, who said to her one day, “Don’t make everything so pretty.” The relief, she says, was “indescribable,” after having been told the opposite for years. “I stopped every single bit of it,” she says. She realized, “I don’t need to smile. I don’t need to charm anybody.” She uses the word “honest” many times when recounting how she felt about this new way of dancing. “Nothing was forbidden,” she says. She danced with the Merce Cunningham Company from 1964 to 1974, but there is a sense in which she is still dancing with Merce, still in conversation with his iconoclastic spirit. She quotes him with love, often.
Valda is like an arrow. In addition to the word “honest,” she likes the word “useful,” as in, taking pains to tell me that she is not a maker, not a choreographer, “I like to feel useful.” In videos of Valda in performance, she is fascinating in her trueness, in the sense that a wheel is true. She is tall, most frequently blond to platinum-haired, with a mobile face and large eyes that gaze very straight. Onstage, she seems to embody the real, which is revelatory and slightly frightening. When she walks, she walks, with utter presence. Her arms and legs seem to extend past their lengths, leaving trails in space.
Here is a story Valda tells me. When she was about four or five, her dance teacher asked if she would do a solo at a garden party. Valda said Oh, yes, and on the day of the party, she says, “immediately it was amazing. The smell, the air, the blossoms, the people. They were watching, and I felt a connection there. So I began to do my dance, which began with me running around in a circle, and then there was a change in the music and then I had to go to the center and do what I thought was a very hard little step. But as I got closer to the time, I thought, I don’t remember what that little step is. Well, I think I’ll just keep running and when we get nearish in the music, maybe I’ll remember. But I didn’t remember, so I kept running. In the audience was a little patter of laughter, but nobody was mean or cross and they kept watching, and I thought, This is wonderful. I feel their friendship. I feel their support. So I ran all the way through the music to the end and ran off to huge applause.”
Oddly, or perhaps not, this dance of simply running in a circle that was danced by a little girl in the 1930s in a garden in a seaside town in England seems like a modern dance, a Cunningham piece scored to the music of John Cage. Who needs the fancy step in the middle? The movement itself is enough, destination irrelevant.
It’s a way of moving. It’s motion, freed from narrative use and prettiness, just the thing itself. When I talk to Valda, I am reminded of some of my earliest ideas about freedom. I was born in 1961, so this is the sixties I’m talking about. I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. My mother was a nurse who worked at a local hospital. My father was a lawyer, the first person in his extended Italian immigrant family to get past the eighth grade. Sometimes, my father would take his Super 8 camera to the marches happening in D.C. and film the young people streaming down the avenues with their signs and banners, particularly the young women, particularly if they were dancing. We were Democrats, so I was anti-war, of course, in a perfunctory eight-year-old way, but my gut idea about freedom was that image I saw on the home movies on the little screen my father would set up in our living room: young people with long hair walking somewhere fervently. I imagine now that they were going toward the White House, but then I didn’t know, or care, what their destination was. Years later, when I read the great Ursula Le Guin fable “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” with its resounding image of a few principled people leaving a place of great delight founded on brutal exploitation, walking away from their home of Omelas toward an unknown horizon, it tapped that earlier image in my private archive of those marches. My image of freedom was, and is, that earnest walk toward an unknown destination. Freedom meant leaving: leaving the Old Country; leaving narrow-minded families and small towns; “She’s Leaving Home,” by the Beatles; leaving the uneducated, the broken, and the sweltering or freezing city apartments for the new. Freedom was a movement away, destination unseen. In the second half of the Western twentieth century, where I grew, freedom was airplanes, transformations, fast cars on highways, perpetual motion, hitchhiking, astronauts, bare skin to air and light, no speed limit.
Valda flew like an arrow from the rubble of postwar England to New York City in the early sixties, where Valda and Merce and John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg all went out to the Automat together to eat and talk. Where David, two days after Ain’s birth, went to dance to Erik Satie at Judson Church. Where, as Yvonne Rainer described the modern dance zeitgeist of that era: “You just ‘do it,’ with the coordination of a pro and the innocence of an amateur.” In that era, avant-garde artists cut up emblems of classical music like pianos and violins; played cellos naked as Charlotte Moorman did; or, as in Cage’s famous non-composition composition 4’33”, made space for audiences to listen to silence, which, as one discovers, is anything but empty.
Talking to Valda, I feel that rush of freedom from ossified posture, custom, and sentiment into the unpredictability of the open air. I understand that iteration of modernism that drives toward the core, the skull beneath the skin, as in the direct lines of the architecture of Le Corbusier and the unembellished designs of the Bauhaus. Things don’t need to be “pretty” as in prettied up; they are complete and wildly meaningful, and meaningfully wild, just as they are. We are only ever here, in this moment. Where else would we be?
At Dia Beacon, a sculpture by minimalist artist Fred Sandback is simply four pieces of yarn forming a square that runs from floor to ceiling in the vast gallery. If you look at this outline of a square, you will suddenly be able to see planes in space—the invisible made visible. You might, then, become almost impossibly aware of infinite planes in space, all co-inhabiting the space you’re in. Sandback made many of these outlines in which strands of yarn drop straight and true, like a plumb line, from high to low, as if actually following tracks in the air. These ultralight sculptures are revelatory, also strangely claustrophobic. They mime walls. It isn’t surprising that Sandback suffered from depression (he committed suicide in 2003, at fifty-nine). His work suggests a perspective that sees walls where others don’t, and he makes them visible, over and over, trying to show us. I never fail to be shocked and moved by these pieces, astonished by the economy of means that accomplishes such a weighty metaphysical task. With a few pieces of yarn, Sandback transforms our very way of seeing. Like running in a circle. Like sitting in an audience watching a person not play an instrument. The world is already full. All you have to do is recognize it. Open your other eyes.
In my young lesbian adulthood, this was how I understood desire—as a verb, a motion, a continual orienting and reorienting toward a trueness with oneself,
a plumb line. We had lots of identity and words, but the ethic was radical honesty about what you wanted, which was understood to be subject to change. Like the concept of freedom, this was an ideal. So, okay. But still. Also, I say “we,” although I can’t speak for an entire moment in time, obviously. My experience is as singular as anyone else’s, as everyone else’s. I came out as a lesbian around 1980. I say “around,” because it isn’t really a discrete date; it’s more wave than particle. But let’s say the wave was high then—I had an actual girlfriend (with whom I was mostly miserable); I told my parents (who were mostly miserable about it). I began going to meetings of Lesbians at Barnard, which happened after hours at the Barnard Women’s Center and were tolerated by the university, at best.
Often, a bunch of us piled into Checker cabs and went down to the West Village to The Duchess, a lesbian bar that had been there since 1972. The Duchess had a bar and jukebox in the front and a small dance floor in the back. Barely ten years after Stonewall, which was across the street, the dyke style at The Duchess leaned toward popped collars, chinos, and mullets. One night, I was there with the misery-inducing girlfriend, who favored multiple earrings, punky hair, several colorful layers of skirts and tops, and handrolled her own cigarettes out of a little pouch of Drum tobacco. I had long, straight hair parted in the middle and still wore the jeans and sweaters of my high school days; in the winter, I topped this with an enormous men’s thrift store wool coat. As we were dancing together, a woman sketched us and showed us the picture: hippie-ish girls, we looked like. I think we must have looked peculiar to her, this raggedy new generation, slow-dancing to Rose Royce’s “Wishing on a Star.”
Forty years later, it’s difficult to convey the continual feeling of risk, of being in unknown and possibly dangerous territory, and of defiance with which we lived. Barnard girls taking a cab to a West Village bar? Not exactly resisting the junta in El Salvador, a sentiment with which the highly anxious me of 1981 would have agreed. But those of us in the Checker cab—middle class and working class and from Hollywood money, different ethnicities, from cities and suburbs and small towns, holding tight to our new haircuts and piercings—were only there together because of desire. Under other circumstances, we might not have known one another, or even liked one another, at all. The bar we were going to was one of a handful of lesbian bars in the city then, and it had been raided as recently as 1980. None of our professors were out, not even the one who was rumored to be lovers with Kate Millett and brought her dog, wonderfully, to class. In the broader cultural world—books, music, art, film, government, the sciences, anywhere—very few people were out. Reagan was in office. The religious right was on the rise. But in that cab, we felt free.
Looking back, it is as if that cab was driving through a desert. Deserts have much life in them, and so did America in terms of queerness, particularly lesbianism, in the early eighties. But, like a desert, much of it was underground, nocturnal, camouflaged. You had to know where to look, and to watch. You had to know the plumb lines of your own desire and be strong enough to follow them wherever they led out into the world—could be they took you to a married woman, a nun, a woman who looked like a man, someone older, or from another country or class or race, someone who swore they weren’t a lesbian and yet kept showing up in your bed, someone who seemed a little crazy (so what, weren’t women often called crazy?), someone who didn’t dress or walk or talk like anyone you had ever known. “I am living a sexuality I don’t understand,” said Amber Hollibaugh at the notorious, and still controversial, 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, and we, sitting on the gym floor listening to her, all knew exactly what she meant. Your desire, which might look to outsiders like something not much more valuable or interesting than a bit of yarn, was the meridian of your very life. Something powerful existed where most other people saw nothing at all. In a world where so much remained covert, coded, forbidden, endangered, and closeted, you had to trust your own instincts to get what you wanted.
Coming out in a time of so much invisibility also taught me that if you headed out of what you knew, even if everyone said there was nothing out there or that what was there was dangerous, shameful, ugly, or sick, a door might well open onto something beautiful, alive, and, as you discovered, essential to your being. If you left the lights of the town, as it were, and headed toward the desert, incredible people and other creatures would be there to meet and delight you in all sorts of ways. All you had to do was walk until you found them and keep your other eyes open.
At the same time, I was often terrified. I wasn’t scared, though, of the world, not really. I was scared of some unnameable inner current, something that often grabbed me by the throat from within, without warning, making my heart pound, shaking my veins. I didn’t know what this was, I couldn’t predict it or stop it, and when it was happening it felt like the earth itself had been sliced in half. I wrote dense, gnomic prose poems where bad things seemed to be happening far beneath.
After the miserable girlfriend dumped me, I met a tall woman who wore button-down white shirts and jeans every day, smoked underhand, had a New York accent, and was frequently mistaken for a man. At The Duchess one night, I asked her to dance. Then, after a long winter of feeling lost and betrayed and like I couldn’t find my way no matter what I did, I finally knew where I was. I knew exactly. As we lay in bed all that summer, the song playing from car radios was Stacy Lattisaw finding love on a two-way street. I didn’t imagine that we were going anywhere specific on that or any other street, in the sense of being a couple, going toward a future, accruing social value and items from our wedding registry. We were just running in the direction we wanted to go. My plan was that the prose poems, and the meridian of my desire, would lead me into some blazing new world. Freedom, on the page and in bed, would save my life. I was sure of it.
Darrel Morrison, born in 1937, grew up on a 160-acre farm in Iowa. Like his two brothers, he was given his own piece of garden by his parents. His father liked to sketch. His mother painted china. Darrel describes himself as “sort of a sissy” who was bullied as a child. He didn’t play football. He played piano, arranged flowers, and made a newspaper called The Cat Press, inspired by, and often devoted to the doings of, the barn cats on the farm. Like all the other kids, he was part of corn detassling crews in the summer. He loved to see the storms approaching over the plains, and the light afterwards. He liked the smell of greenhouses. The family listened to the radio at night. One day while milking cows, he had a vision of what his life would be: he would have a little brick house, with a picket fence and flowers all around. Even at seventy-eight, talking to me on a snowy day in his apartment in Chelsea, he has a Midwestern burr in his voice and a manner that is both friendly and reserved. He is handsome, jovial, curled up on the sofa in his socks. “You know I’m gay,” he says to me right away, as if to warn me. There are boxes piled all around, because he is leaving New York to go back to Madison, Wisconsin, where his ex-wife lives in their old house. When he’s there, which he will be now permanently, he has breakfast with her regularly. They had two sons during their twenty-four-year marriage. One works for the State Highway Patrol in Wisconsin. The other teaches Mideastern political science and law outside London.
Darrel is a revolutionary in landscape design. He changed the field (as it were). The mainstream tradition in American landscape design that Darrel was taught came from England via Harvard and it worked something like a zoo or a museum: plants came from everywhere in the world and were curated together to form exquisite visual compositions on lots and lots of lawn. They were generally chosen for their shapes and color, not for any organic relationship to their environment or one another.
When Darrel was a teenager, these were the kinds of landscape designs he saw in magazines like Better Homes and Gardens. He had a different idea. He entered the Adair County Fair flower-arranging contest at fourteen with carefully constructed displays of corn tassels, oat stalks, and alfalfa, because, he says now, “I thought they were neat.” He swept the show, to the consternation of the Midwestern ladies who were his competitors and of his father, who was embarrassed. But Darrel had found his vocation. He majored in landscape architecture at Iowa State, graduating in 1959.
Inspired by the prairie restorations of the 1930s, Ladybird Johnson’s highway beautification projects, and new thinking about plant ecology, Darrel had a vision of what he calls “sweeps” or “drifts” over “spots.” Traditional landscape design then was dominated by spots: visually spectacular, often ecologically fragile single species from all over the world framed and isolated on lawns. Call it imperialistic gardening. Darrel loved the overall sweep of the native plants of the prairie—the broad patterns, the light, the drifting that occurs in a natural landscape. That was beautiful to him. If you’ve, say, walked on the High Line in New York, you’ve walked through an environment of sweeps—various native plants growing in swaths and clusters and handfuls. This kind of landscape design is everywhere now, but it wasn’t in 1972, when Darrel debuted his design, for the Women’s Co-op Garden in Walden Park in Wisconsin, of oats, prairie grasses, and native forest species. He was still married; as he says, “I played the suburban husband role really well.” Despite a few conference dalliances with men, he stayed married until 1987. He came out in 1993, at fifty-six, by which he means that’s when he told his sons.
After he came out, Darrel began designing with music. If you were fortunate enough to be a student of Darrel’s, he would have told you to take off your shoes, pick up a pastel, and sketch landscape designs however they came to you while listening to Philip Glass’s “The Low Symphony” or “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. He had been a landscape designer all his life, but the new freedom he felt personally seemed to turn up music’s effect on his creativity. He saw more of what he calls “rivers” and drifts; his plans became more detailed, with dots of color throughout that flowed and ebbed into other colors. Even these drawings, done in colored pencil, seem to pulse.
It was as if, freed from a certain vector of secrecy, his capacity for synesthesia opened up. If you go to Storm King, the five-hundred-acre outdoor sculpture garden in New Windsor, New York, you can walk among the sweeps of switchgrass, oats, perennial alfalfa, and other native grasses planted by Morrison. The massive sculptures by artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Mark di Suvero, lapped by native plants, seem like structures or beings from the future, or perhaps the distant past, by contrast. Or you can go to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, and make your way to the Old Stone Mill, where Darrel transformed a one-acre site into, as he describes it in his 2021 book The Beauty of the Wild: A Life Designing Landscapes Inspired by Nature, “rivers of purple lovegrass and little bluestem . . . ; various ferns, wild geranium, columbine, woodland phlox, and sedges. . . . The drifts cascading down the slope were composed of closely spaced gray birch and sassafras trees . . . gray dogwood and dwarf bush honeysuckle.” These environments never tell you where to look; they never point or isolate; instead, they flow, they drift, they tumble, they tickle the knee and the hand.
Throughout Darrel’s life, always, has been the earth. Ground. Source. Except for his early days as editor in chief of The Cat Press, and a love of journalism generally, he has never wavered in his vocation. When we talk about the role of love in his life, he includes “biophilia.”
When I talked to him on that snowy New York day, I found myself thinking of Colette, who had a similar relationship to ground, to source, over her long, varied, and sometimes quite dramatic life. On the summer day that I visited the Colette Museum in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, her childhood village, the main exhibition there devoted to her life was organized not by her books, but by the eras of her major relationships: Henry Gauthier-Villars (Willy), Mathilde de Morny (Missy), Henry de Jouvenel, Maurice Goudeket; there was also a section for her daughter, Colette de Jouvenel. One does wonder if the life of a major male writer would be similarly organized, although it has a certain psychosexual charm. What would such curators do with Henry James? Henry Miller? However, if the curatorial principle here was passion, the curators might as plausibly have organized her biography via the gardens and green places in her life: the beloved garden of her mother, Sido, a passionate gardener; Casamene, the garden at the farmhouse in Jura she shared with Willy; the Bois de Boulogne; the garden of several acres she made, at fifty-two, at her house in Tamaris les Pins in Provence; the regimented garden of the Palais Royal that she watched every day from her window in the last years of her life, marooned on the sofa by arthritis. While we think of Colette as a writer who explored matters of the heart, her fiction is also full of earth: gardens, bodies, animals, dirt, food, all the stuff of the natural world.
In Flowers and Fruit, published in 1986, the editor and Colette devotee Robert Phelps collected many of Colette’s nonfiction essays on plants. Most of them were written on that sofa; reading them, one has the sense that she is summoning, through words, gardens and wild places where she will never walk again. For instance, of a wisteria from her childhood she writes, “It was as heavy with bees as with blossoms and would hum like a cymbal whose sound spreads without ever fading away, more beautiful each year, until the time when Sido, leaning over its flowery burden out of curiosity, let out the little ‘Ah-hah!’ of great discoveries long anticipated: the wisteria had begun to pull up the iron railing.”
In this passage, and throughout these essays, Colette glories in the powerful libidinal force and myriad strange beauties of plants. She feels pity for those flowers “imprisoned” in flower shows and is generally suspicious of gardeners and others who try to bend the vegetable world to their preferences for impressive color and size. She calls a hydrangea bred for huge blooms “hydrocephalic.” To the hellebore, she writes, “When you are put into the hands of a florist, his first concern is to manhandle your petals, bending them back flat, just as he attempts to do to the tulip, torturing it to death. Behind his back, I undo his work of breaking and entering.”
In Flowers and Fruit, Colette anthropomorphizes vegetative citizens constantly. Some badly treated anemones arrive at her flat “dry-eyed” and “prostrate,” but once she gives them a “footbath. . . . Each anemone, feeling more like itself,” becomes “a surprise of red velvet.” To a tulip, she writes, “come and sit here by my side.” She writes a monologue from the point of view of a gardenia, who appears to be having an ongoing rivalry with a nicotiana nearby. Meanwhile, in her descriptions of people in her work, she—what would the word be? vegetopomorphizes?—her characters. Renée, the main character in The Vagabond, sees her rouged cheeks in the mirror “as brightly coloured as garden phlox”; the cheeks of the young man Chéri in Chéri are transparent as “a white rose in winter”; necks are compared to lilies; a young male lover is seen as a rare, flowering cactus.
Had they ever met, in some parallel universe where Darrel went to Paris at fifteen and sat by Colette’s sofa a few years before her death, they might have understood each other by the way they both regarded plants. Whatever language barriers would have existed, they could have pointed. They could have nodded, looking together at Colette’s beloved botanical illustrations by the renowned Pierre-Joseph Redouté. I think they would have laid their hands together gently on the prints—his smooth ones, her veiny and gnarled ones—as if they could touch the living things themselves:
I am writing this as summer heat explodes records; in Portland, Oregon, it’s 115 degrees and streets are buckling. Glaciers are melting. Species, possibly including ours, are approaching extinction. The black and white cat, unaware (or is he?), sleeps on my desk. I am neither bedridden nor arthritic, nor a national treasure, and my study window overlooks a concrete courtyard, not the Palais Royal. But what Darrel and Colette saw years before I was born—that the natural world needs to be chosen, cultivated, loved, and defended—I see now, possibly too late. From one’s aesthetic, ongoing life—or not.
I also envy these two gardeners, and their sense of the earth holding them all their lives. They are lifelong artist-scientists, and lovers. Darrel, in his fifties, fell in love with an Italian plant scientist, a man whom he met at a concert at the University of Georgia; then, a bit later on, a Brazilian man named Flavio, who died; then others. In Colette’s novel Break of Day, the fiftyish heroine—who is also named Colette—retreats to her summer house in Provence to renounce love for the rest of her life. Colette wrote the book after her second marriage, to Henry de Jouvenel, ended. It was published in 1928, when she was fifty-five. Lyrical and elliptical, suffused with profound pleasure in the natural world, the novel can make the reader believe that connecting to plant life isn’t only a substitute for sex, it might be a bit better. On a walk along a coast road, for instance, she communes with “the narrow flowery marsh where hemp agrimony, statice and scabious contribute three shades of mauve, the tall flowering reed its cluster of brown edible seeds, the myrtle its white scent—white, white and bitter, pricking the tonsils, white to the point of causing nausea and ecstasy—the tamarisk its rosy mist and the bulrush its beaver-furred club.” Who needs human beings when nature is this polymorphous and sensual? In Break of Day, fictional Colette renounces the highly delectable, much younger Vial, who spends his days restoring furniture, swimming, not wearing a lot of clothes, and pursuing her. To his ardor, she replies, “au revoir,” without so much as a kiss passing between them. In life, however, Colette was already deeply, ecstatically, involved with Maurice Goudeket, seventeen years younger, who became her third husband in 1935 and to whom she stayed married until her death in 1954.
If my question is, What sustains artists over the long run?, then the answer from Darrel and Colette might clearly be: earth, which sounds so charming. However, one can’t garden, or be in a garden, or a forest, or on a prairie very long before one notices the death there. Unlike statues or cathedrals, plants inevitably turn brown, wither, and die, some of them quite quickly, like poppies, others extremely slowly, like redwoods. It is often said of Colette that she was a connoisseur of love, but it could equally be said that, more than once, she was able to bear and create from the death of love. And the return of love. As the museum in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye demonstrated structurally, her life comprised a series of long, intense, generative relationships that opened and then closed.
Every garden is also a graveyard. Every book or painting or piece of music both resurrects what has been lost—this family trying to get to a lighthouse, that August light, that perfect day—and marks its absence. However lyrical Colette’s comparisons of necks to lilies and young men to cacti, in relation to the cycle of life, this fluidity is not a whimsical trope. It is reality. Eventually, all people do become plants. Architecture often gets worse as it ages, Darrel says, but a landscape properly done only gets better, by which he means less visibly “designed” or what he calls “frozen.” He likes to tell students that painting is two dimensional, sculpture and architecture are three dimensional, but landscape architecture is four dimensional and the fourth dimension is time. He enjoys watching the pattern of his plantings get “fuzzier” over the years, an aesthetic that might apply equally to our inner lives, our perceptions, our bodies, or all of them. If we are to, say, save the planet, we might have to consider the difference between valuing the immortally frozen (plastic, visual images on screens, money) and valuing the mortally mutable (plants, animals, us). One wonders if our fear of death, which is to say decay and aging and limits on resources, might actually be what kills us before our time, more than the usually cited sin of greed.
There are other sorts of gardens, and gardeners. There are other ways that lives end and begin again. Midway through her life, in 1974, Valda was a passenger in a car on Long Island that, while crossing railroad tracks, was hit by a train. The train dragged the car until it hit a telephone pole. Valda went partly through the windshield. It was weeks before she could sit up by herself; even once she could walk again, she was terrified of doing anything alone, because she would often find herself somewhere with no memory of how she’d gotten there. She was forty, and just before the accident, she had decided to leave the Cunningham company. She says that she had decided to leave, because Merce, who had been “so staggeringly present” onstage in the sixties, “wasn’t in things so much” and “the adventure and the making of events and the moments that were unplanned and unexplained weren’t happening in the way they had.” The sets, designed by Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol, became fancier, as did the audiences, who often came as much to see the sets as the dances. The dance programs became fixed, and repetitive. After the accident, though, she didn’t know what, if anything, she could do on stage anymore.
To help her regain her confidence, David began to make a dance with her for the two of them called “Chair.” The dance began when David pretended to fall off a wooden bench in Cunningham’s dance studio and Valda laughed. David, thrilled to hear her laugh, started there. In the days that followed, he coaxed Valda to sit on the chair, step on the chair, lift the chair, jump off the chair, even, into a pile of coats, fall off the chair. She moved. Her memory improved.
In a grainy video of a 1978 performance of “Chair,” the stage is bare except for Valda, David, and two metal folding chairs. Their clothes are nondescript—shirts and loose pants, with matching white bands at their knees. They each move on, around, over, under, beside, atop, against, and even within the two folding chairs on which they also sometimes sit down. It’s like watching the definition of a preposition written in choreography.
The chair is always there; the marriage, too, has always been there: a lifelong duet. They met taking class with James Waring in 1958. Partnered, David complained, “She’s too heavy to lift,” to which Valda replied, “He doesn’t know how to lift.” They were married for more than sixty years, until David’s death in 2022. In “Chair,” David didn’t lift Valda; instead, he helped her remember how to lift herself. The nondescript metal chair also holds her, crowns her. If she needs it for support, you can’t tell; it looks like a virtuoso’s prop, like the hat rack Fred Astaire danced with in Royal Wedding. In the video, David is a looker—in photos from the seventies, he looks something like Oscar Isaac crossed with Jake Gyllenhaal, flowing of dark hair and beard, sleepy of eye—but it is Valda who commands one’s attention. She seems to be fully apprehending the chair in its mysterious essence, possibly molecularly, at every moment, and deciding what to do about it—roll on it, maybe. Fold it up. Stand on it. Ignore it. She is beautiful, too, but she also radiates thereness, being, and presence. She appears to hold back nothing. David wrote the role of Duchamp for her in his collaborative piece The Mysteries and What’s So Funny?; he wrote Brecht for her as well in his Uncivil Wars. In the years that followed, she played Lear as well; she worked with Robert Wilson and JoAnne Akalaitis, and appeared in films by Brian De Palma and Woody Allen.
I have no idea what passed between these two people over their sixty years together. A lot, most likely. What I do know is that this is a man who made a dance for a woman, a dancer, after she was hit by a train, and put her in the foreground of the stage; this is a woman who danced that dance with her complete attention not long after her head went through a windshield. Did their patterns get fuzzier over time? Don’t everyone’s? But for more than sixty years, they had each other: on, around, over, under, beside, atop, against, within.
I am in awe of their six decades together, and that duration is also strange to me when it comes to people. I’ve never gone back to an ex-lover. Nor am I a gardener. My current partner is a gardener; he knows intuitively what plants want, which seems to me like a superpower. My garden, my source, my lifelong marriage, has been New York City. I have been on, around, over, under, beside, atop, against, and within it nearly all my life. I now live less than ten blocks from the hospital where I was born over sixty years ago. I have loved this city, hated it, been bored by it, indifferent to it, amazed by it, hurt by it, changed by it, and always, always, I have come back to it.
If you live in a place for a long time, it, too, becomes a graveyard, with memorials everywhere—this is the movie theater where I last ran into him before he died; here is where I attended the memorial service for her; that’s the building where he had been living, so ill, on the morning I called, too late—but also figuratively. Your past lives, past selves, haunt this place, still going to dinner with that lost friend or lover in that great little restaurant that no longer exists, crying on that sidewalk, dancing in that fabulously sexy grimy club that is now a boutique that sells very expensive sneakers, laboring away at that desk high up in a corner of what has become a multiplex, marching down Sixth Avenue with thousands of others to protest things that happened anyway, interviewing that star you worshipped in that hotel room. The star is dead; the hotel is still there.
A certain indifference may be elemental to a life-giving source. The earth long predates, and may post-date, our species; the city clatters and blazes on no matter the citizens; if you marry, the bond exists legally whatever anyone may be feeling at any given moment. We depend on source, but source does not depend on us. In the same way that I envy gardeners, I have also envied people of deep religious faith, because they know that they are part of something so much bigger than themselves that is kindly disposed toward them, and they can lean back against that. If I believed in Jesus, maybe I wouldn’t have to live in New York.
As it is, I draw spiritually every day on the abundance of this city. While there are many kinds of abundance here—cultural, racial, financial, architectural, culinary—the one I love most is the narrative abundance. Walk onto a subway car—any subway car. Look at the people: the Latinx woman with the four black balloons (why?); the two very pale young men in short-sleeved white shirts with nametags that say Elder John and Elder Samuel (how could they be elders, barely able to grow their first beards? Elder Samuel’s nametag is tilted); the Black man in a suit wearing hot pink earbuds, watching on his phone as someone does a handstand against a wall; the lanky, elderly white woman who refuses all the seat offers of the Elders, the Black man, and the Latinx woman. She holds onto the pole with both of her large hands, looking around at everything, full grocery bags at her feet. The train rushes past station platforms where more stories mingle and wait, peering down the tracks. The train also rushes past ghost stations, abandoned caves covered in graffiti. Who hovers there, still? Do I see a face there or do I imagine it?
I don’t know what all these stories might be, only that they are there, innumerable, endless story in all directions, and at all hours. You can read this city for your entire life, and never get to the end of it. It is an enormous novel, a vast collective roman fleuve, and you don’t even really know what role you may be playing there. The rivers and drifts, the sweeps, carry you along with them, furiously paddling away at your life, thinking you’re an isolated dot, often entirely unaware of the greater current. The shaped narratives on offer here in print or on film or on the stage or in museums can be extraordinary, but equally extraordinary are the unshaped narratives that grow wild on every street and that you might glimpse in a window, in a taxi speeding past, in the doorway of a building, leaning on a folding chair on a stage. It is this plenitude and mystery that I love—not only the stories I know, but also perhaps even more all the stories I can never know, only sense, fleetingly, as they pulse around me and then move on. They don’t need me to write or shape them. They are continuous, flowing in their own ways.
On a July day that isn’t life-threateningly hot, but hot enough, my partner and I take the train to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where Darrel created the Native Flora Garden Extension in 2011. We have a map of the garden, but we get confused, anyway. We make our way to a shady glade where placards explain the Native American names for each tree and what it was used for (medicine, canoes, gifts); is this the extension? We go through a wooden gate; are we going into the extension now? Or did we just leave it? It’s a Saturday, so this green space is busy. Everyone on the pathways is wearing their masks at wrists and elbows, like corsages. Some of them are talking loudly to one another or into their phones. We can hear traffic noise, radio noise from the street outside. A plane passes overhead.
“Look,” says my partner. “An inchworm.”
Butterflies. Bees. A dirt path. It’s getting brighter. I put my hat on. We cross a little bridge, and now it’s all sun, color, and tall, brushy stalks. This must be the extension, because it feels like we’ve wandered into a random, unplanned meadow. In some places, the path is nearly overgrown by the tall stalks, which swish against us as we walk. I find I am walking more slowly. It’s quieter back here. I call it a “meadow,” but it’s actually pine barrens, native to the northeast. If I were Darrel, I could identify some of the scents as “the curry-like smell of rabbit tobacco and pungent beebalm,” but I just think: hot earth.
Later, we sit in the shade of a grove of identically spaced trees on a lawn, next to a rose garden. Nearby, two women in headscarves take each other’s picture. A group of people, young and old, are two trees away on several blankets. Fragments of their conversation in Spanish float through the warm air. I don’t know what we look like to them—an older white man and white woman, both in white shirts, who obviously haven’t come prepared for any kind of picnic. The man has a shaved head and the woman wears a straw hat. If we were in one of Darrel’s planning watercolors, we’d be fuzzy beige spots on green lawn.
“We should come out here more,” I say. “It’s amazing.”
My partner takes off his shoes and socks and stretches out on the grass. Eyes closed, arms outstretched, he nods, already drifting away.