This article first appeared on Jill Johnston’s website (www.jilljohnston.com) as her “Johnston Letter” for September 2006 (volume 2, number 3).
I WAS AT STANLEY’S, my dentist, talking to Gail, his hygienist, while she cleaned my teeth. We were sharing complaints, a typical trade of grievances, when I brought up Darfur—currently Darfur is my reference when I feel guilty about living in America—saying you know, millions of people in Darfur are being killed, what’s wrong with us? And Gail said, “tsuris.”
“What’s that?” I sort of yelled.
“It’s Yiddish for ‘troubles.’”
“We have troubles,” she explained.
I found this very funny and momentarily forgot all about Darfur. “Troubles” is such a droll expediency for covering the vast array of our adversities. With the approach of 9/11, escape from the U.S., now run by thugs who do not have our best interests at heart, can be one of the larger concerns. Of course we have small individual ones too. When I go outside I see that everyone walks better than me. In Vermont for five days, occupying the house of friends, it was nice not seeing anyone. Ingrid described a butterfly she saw while out walking: it was midnight blue, the edges of its wings had white stripes dotted with black; it had a metallic shine, and it was beautiful. On the deck, I watched a vine of heart-shaped leaves that had climbed a TV electrical pole, the leaves creating sun and shade in overlapping patterns. I wish I could paint. Or negotiate with those who would kill us, both inside and outside the U.S. The best we can do is laugh over how we plan to escape. It would not, I can tell you this, be in Patty Mucha’s car. Driving with her from her house near St. Johnsbury, a spot much further north in Vermont than the deck and heart-shaped leaves, to Littleton, New Hampshire, to see David Goldblatt and his wife Michelle for dinner, we were speeding along at 50 miles an hour. It was going to make us a half hour late, and I’m phobic about being on time. To have gone in our Honda would have meant removing a huge rubber ball wedged into our back seat, and finding a place for it in Patty’s house. But with Ingrid driving, we would have been a half hour early. I don’t like to be early or late. Of course if “escape” is involved, speed is all that matters. At table with David and Michelle and David’s daughter and her friends, when world affairs and 9/11 came up, I saw them in a good position to thunder if necessary out of Littleton and burn up the road into Canada and beyond to the ice, or whichever ice isn’t already melting. With the tarmacs in New York choked bumper over bumper, we wouldn’t stand a chance. I see us in a kayak or a rubber tub in the river paddling upstream carrying a gallon of water and wearing oxygen masks. We might make it to the GW Bridge. I’ve been in training, getting impressive biceps at the gym. At Stanley’s, I showed off one of them to Gail during a break over my teeth. She said, well at least you don’t have “Hadassah arms.” What’s that, I asked her, ignorant again. It means old Jewish women, she said, “whose arms have gone to flab.” O lord—Recumbent in Gail’s dental chair, I wrapped my right hand around my forehead, sighing over our future—our mortality.
I still see Karl Stuecklen vividly the week before he died, staring unseeingly at you from a reclining chair close to his hospital bed. He didn’t blink, and he seemed very small. I don’t know if he recognized any of us. He was dying in his dome, a prefab Bucky Fuller structure that he had assembled on top of his mountain, Sandgate, Vermont, 1970 or ’71. It’s only five miles from the house where we were staying with a deck and electrical pole beautified with leaves. For years I only went to Sandgate, or Vermont for that matter, to visit Karl. Sandgate, founded in 1761, is no longer a town, but a mountainous area with a population of 300. Its postal address is Arlington. Karl and his mountain, actually called Swearing Hill, and Sandgate were one, one indivisible entity. Now Swearing Hill and Sandgate are strange to me. They’ve disappeared somehow. I wonder what the Dalai’s palace in Tibet and Tibet itself would look like to him if he returned there. (I know, I know; it’s not the same.) A couple of years ago, after Karl was diagnosed with something terrible-sounding called Corticobasal Degeneration, and he could still walk and talk, he took me deep into the woods of his hundred acres to see where his son Karlchen is buried. Karlchen, the picture of Karl, was only three when he was fatally hit by a truck in New York, causing Karl and his first wife Barbara to retreat to the mountain with their older and remaining son Macheath. Off a grass and dirt road beaten into submission by the repetitious advance of car tires, was an overgrown hillside field where Karlchen’s grave site is, and alongside which Karl’s own ashes now repose. He spoke then only if I asked him something, like the name of a flower or a tree. He knew all the names, and he knew the birds too. I remember the salads he made to take for dinner at a friend’s, topped with flowers, especially red ones, from his garden or woods. Karl belonged to a mountain community which helped keep him alive as an artist, its members buying his oils and watercolors, many of them resplendent landscapes or river scenes around Sandgate. It wasn’t, I believe, only Karlchen’s death that drove Karl to a pastoral existence, but the war, the Great World War #2. Karl, one of seven children, was born in Leipzig in the unfortunate year of 1940. His father, a colonel in Hitler’s army, had to go before a tribunal when the conflict was over to prove he was not a war criminal. At Karl’s memorial, his older brother Klaus, who lives near St. Johnsbury, tearfully recalled Karl as a “smiling blond curly-headed boy in the Alps [the family had retreated to the Austrian Alps after the war]with his arms full of flowers.” Macheath, now perhaps forty (I first knew him when he was eight), was saying how much he learned about nature from his father. “When you look at the mountains,” he said emotionally, “you see him.” I see him there too, and in his dome, where he lived spartanly, existing on as little as seven thousand a year, entertaining in his understated German hospitality, serving a flavorsome dinner, taking you behind the dome to his studio, and showing you some recently finished painting or one in progress. Karl designed the jacket for my first book, which was titled “Marmalade Me.” At that time, authors were still allowed to determine the look of their own books. He filled the letters of my title with tomato-red criss-crossing lines (on a blue ground), coolly representing marmalade. I wasn’t at the memorial, but saw the video. I was home, in a certain self-induced depression (is there any other kind?) over things in my life I felt I couldn’t change. I mentioned this to Gail at Stanley’s. I’ve had depressed moments before, but never what I would call a depression. It wasn’t clinical, as they say, since I could still work up interest in stuff, like my video or DVD films. Gail asked me if I took anti-depressants. I said no no, I would never take anything like that. She asked, “So how did you get out of it?” And I told her, “I just got up one morning and decided to get on with it, and stop my crying jags, which were quite exhausting.” Anyhow why should I feel bad over things in life I felt I couldn’t change? Either they would change in time, or I would find a way to change them, or let them go. This sounds so mature, it takes my breath away. Yesterday I regressed, and told Ingrid I would stop saying thank you all the time (there is simply no end to what she does for me), and save it for my deathbed. We went to a great picnic at Lynn’s and Jamie’s in West Cornwall with old friends Joanne, Sandra, and Vern. Getting together, we remember when we all lived there. Now we were relaxing in chairs under the land’s magnificent maple tree. Someone brought up the day when Yoko and John sent a uniformed chauffeur in a limo—a two-hour drive from the city—with fifty roses for my fiftieth, which happened at Lynn’s and Jamie’s. It still blows all our minds. One evening this August when I went to see Mark Morris’s new “Mozart Dances” at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, our Honda became a limo. Opening night the theater was so packed, the press agents would not give some critics their usual guest ticket, and Ingrid waited outside in the limo line for me. As I was standing up to leave before the last curtain call, I turned to the critic sitting next to me and said I had to go, that my 1988 Honda limo was waiting for me. Mark Morris, whose Mozart dances are set to Piano Concerto Numbers 11 and 27 and the Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, just turned fifty, and the other pianist besides Emanuel Ax was Yoko Nozaki. Morris has said of Mozart: “The more I study his music, the richer and deeper and more thrilling it is.” “It’s astounding music, every single inch of it.”
So is Morris’s choreography. While we plan our escapes or sigh over Hadassah arms or mourn the death of a friend or ponder our depressions, we can see the greatest, most beautiful dances ever made in the American tradition. I swoon and become delirious over them, “every single inch” of them. In an unlikely place—the sports pages of the Times—I read a Dostoyevsky quote: “Beauty will save the world.” I believe it was in an article about the Swiss tennis champion Roger Federer, who not only wins but looks extremely stylish while doing it. I can’t go to the courts, but see it on TV. A live sunset may be the best. Driving into the city from Vermont, passing by the George Washington Bridge looming above, perpendicularly westward, and heading down the West Side Highway at just the right time and with the luck of clouds, was a long swath, a scarf across the sky, with large scalloped raggedy edges underneath collecting the sun, and below—an immense pink-rose paradise. At home, I took a picture of our ball, still unmoved in its privileged position in the car. Patty had said, “You’re giving your ball a ride.” It’s the Bodyball everyone uses at the gym. I don’t do any exercises sitting or lying on it, but rather play catch with it with Ingrid. It’s so big and dense, if you can heave it even a short distance, the effort seems worth it. While working on my biceps at the gym one day, a man shouted at me from a distant machine, “You inspire me.” I shouted back, “For what?” He didn’t answer. Anyway I don’t lift more than ten pounds, or pull more than fifteen. However, having by now worked out for two years, I should be strong enough to pull my weight paddling up the Hudson in our rubber tub against the current toward St. Johnsbury and Littleton, where cars can bear us to the ice that hasn’t melted yet. A group of penguins on some berg might deign to create a new society with us. It could be called penhum, or guinan, translated: beauty is all.
Jill Johnston, author, lives and works in New York. Her much anticipated book, Carillon: A Tale of English Secrets, American Money, and the Making of Big Bells, will be published by Cadmus Editions in 2007.