Woman in Blue Reading a Letter – Johannes Vermeer 1663/4
I had not been to the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam before 2014, so was lucky enough to go a year after its magnificent refurbishment. I walked into the Gallery of Honour drinking in every painting. Despite half my degree being in History of Art, the 17th century was not a period that I studied so knew little about it. I found myself in front of the Vermeers and was most particularly taken by Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. I had no previous interest in Vermeer. I thought of his art as Dutch fridge magnets. But here, I was drawn into a stillness despite the bustle around me and into a meditative state for the longest time. I was completely overcome by what the painting was doing – or undoing. When I came back into the room, I was curious as to how he could have induced that in me. The Vermeer cubicle was hung with Dutch 17C domestic scenes by other artists which only highlighted Vermeer’s greatness. What was it about him? His intense colour, ethereal light and exquisite draughtsmanship served to hallow a moment of engagement in a daily task, in this case, reading a letter. Time distilled like a human still life. He pays attention to the woman paying attention and so gently required me, the viewer to pay my attention. This story stayed for me because I had the experience before I got the meaning. I did not go into the gallery looking for Vermeer and had no previous interest in him. Even now, I have no idea what experts say about him, but in front of this painting I felt in my body and soul why Vermeer is a genius. Life happened to me unmediated.
My pre-lockdown routine is to walk by the Tyne every day. The Tyne is made of 2 rivers – the North which begins at Kielder and the South which begins in Alston Moor in Cumbria. The rivers meet near Hexham where I live. It has been a deep pleasure of our permitted exercise to discover a new walk in the woods at Watersmeet. As I stand with the trees behind me, amidst the branches and debris of the February floods, I listen to the sound of the river rushing by. Whatever condition I come in, life is flowing on and I am part of it. At my feet, over the weeks the wood anemones have given way to primroses and now there are bluebells and wild garlic. I watch the waters of grief and the waters of gratitude flowing into one, on their journey down to Tynemouth, 36 miles away. Grief and gratitude, the twin inner streams of lockdown, are inseperable, one river flowing through me every single day.
I have good days and bad days. We are locked down with the best and the worst of ourselves. Even when I am feeling furniture-bitingly frustrated or sad and tearful, I let it all come and accept it without trying to understand. This is how it is. I can just let it be and it need not be covered over to get to the next thing on the timetable. Sometimes, it is like this in the night. Dreams or the day’s moods can amplify and waken me. My bed is comfortable, soft and white and I snuggle down even if I cannot get back to sleep and know that whilst the night-time phantoms are real, it is also true that all is well. Grief and gratitude: the waters meet again.
The internet is awash with people trying to make sense of this time but this is a new time, a strange time, a never before time. Rumi famously said “Exchange your cleverness for bewilderment”. I choose to avoid the internet for my own self-care and stay bewildered. I want to allow the wildness of myself and the earth around me, and this virus that we cannot entirely defend ourselves against, to be as they are. I want to have the experience and let the meaning come later – and when it wants to come. I want to delay the predictions. I have heard them all from outright despair to blithe optimism for ourselves and the planet. I choose to be bewildered. The poet Kaveh Akbar commented that “in order to be bewildered, you have to be able to wonder.” The strangeness of this time helps me to wonder. I wonder at the quiet, at the birds singing or flying with twig in beak, at the new normal of crossing the street to show you care, at the slow motion of time, suspended as in grief or new parenthood. I am bewildered like I was in front of Vermeer, without understanding. I will wait to see what this time has to show me, but for now, I will try to live it.
This poem which I have (unfairly) lifted lines from is from an epic poem called Labrador by Kenneth White. It is of course, the wrong season – but the right silence. I have long valued it as a poem about bewilderment.
I lived a winter there
it was a time of white silence
I carved a poem on the rocks
in praise of winter and white silence
among the best runes ever done
I was aware of a new land
a new world
but I was loathe to name it too soon
simply content to use my senses
feeling my way
step by step.
I lived and moved as I have never done before
the track of the caribou in the snow
the flying of wild geese
the red Autumn of the maple tree
bitten by frost
I tried to learn
the language of that silence
a man needs to fix his knowledge
but he also needs an emptiness
in which to move
religion and philosophy
what I’d learned in the churches and the schools
were all too heavy for this travelling life
all that remained to me was poetry
but a poetry
as unobtrusive as breathing
a poetry like the wind
and the maple leaf.