There are a lot of escapes and I am very adept at all of them. My specialty, when feelings of awkwardness threaten to turn me robotic at parties or gatherings, is to stash my wine glass in the nearest flower pot, and head for the nearest exit with the speed of a salamander that leaves it’s tail in an effort to survive. But the Houdini-que escape I’ve used most often was my arguably my best: a daily half hour round trip to the radiance and warmth of summer in the French countryside, circa the turn of the century. I used to slip away alone to spend virtually every lunch hour on an upper floor of MoMA, embraced by and immersed in Monet’s Water Lilies.
This is an age ago, before sluggish lines snaked down 53rd Street and museum entry fees cost a king’s ransom. The Water Lilies were given their own room back then at MoMA, the massive paintings taking up three walls with a couch that wrapped around the remainder of the room. Too often museums make you feel as if you’re a passenger on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the Disneyland, but this installation was truly a vest pocket of calm in the land of Broadway Boogie Woogie. When I left my job in that neighborhood, it was my quiet, intensely private lunch sojourns I missed the most. The experience of simply sitting and feeling –not even actively thinking – in front of beautiful works of art is something I had lost.
So it is a very odd that the thing I loved most about the city is the thing I’ve actually denied myself for all these years. I’ve been back to the museums of course, but it’s different. I’m either tense the whole time because I’m leading a pack of children toward the exhibits and away from the gift shop or I’m fretting because the clock is ticking away on the gargantuan museum parking fees or much worse, I’m showing off, self-consciously feeling the need to pontificate on the artistic merits and deeper connections of the works I’m viewing.
Last week though, on yet another bitterly cold and snowy day, I was once again swept away, as of old. I was on the arm of one of my sons. Somehow between his schedule and mine we found a whole unfettered, unbroken day to spend together. The Museum this time was not MoMA but the Metropolitan.
The plan was that there was no plan, no fixed schedule, no agenda. Like a pair in a rudderless rowboat on a lazy summer afternoon, we drifted from room to room. From ancient Babylonia to the Belle Époque. Modern Japan to the Italian Renaissance. We walked and walked and as we did, the crowds just seemed to give way. There was calm.
Lunch on trays in the cafeteria, a bottle of Chablis and two plastic wine glasses. Afterwards, my son brandished the map, as an explorer on his way to finding buried treasure, discovering whatever artistic jewels he wanted to unearth.
Hour piled upon hour, but still no tension, no rush. At last I blurted out, almost desperately, “I really wish that I could be Claudia.” My son didn’t miss a beat, “and I wish I could be Jamie.” He had remembered. From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The runaways who stayed over at the most beautiful place that they could imagine: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (If you haven’t read it, please do. You won’t be sorry.)
It had to end though. But it was a true escape, perhaps my best ever. As before, when I broke free of petty tensions and typing and office frolics by forgoing actual lunch for feeding my soul with the Water Lilies, once again I’m unbending. Unfreezing. Outside the drifts of snow are still so high. But the sun is out and it’s bright and warm. Spring is coming.
I can’t really remember what artworks I saw that day. It doesn’t matter. But know exactly how I felt. Deeply happy and utterly at peace.
“If thou of fortune be bereft, and of thine earthly store hath left, two loaves; sell one and with the dole, by hyacinths to feed the soul.” John Greenleaf Whittier
Wishing everyone a warm and reviving Spring.