Wednesday, July 30, 2014

For Sylvia, Leaning into Her Life

A low-res image transferred from a slide--
my only known record of this piece.
It was the grad-school apartment of my dreams: the second story of an old brick residence with silver radiators, gorgeous molding, and the only balcony. I wrote my thesis poetry on that balcony, in the humid Greensboro evenings, feet up on the railing. When it got too dark to write, I’d return inside and paint by clip lamp.

During my second year in the writing program, all of the tenants in my building were women. Below me, lived a fellow student poet. Above me, an undergrad cellist. Across the hall, an uptight saleswoman, and below her, the most interesting of us all: Sylvia. No one knew exactly what Sylvia did, nor her exact age. Plastic surgery had probably occurred. She dressed in mid-century clothing, and we guessed she was in her late sixties, though she dyed her hair jet black and teased it into an immobile beehive. Every weekday evening, just after five, she took the bus back home from her unnamed job. Often, she would emerge from her apartment an hour or two later, with a fresh smear of red lipstick, carrying a patent leather purse and wobbling on heels down the swath of steps below the wide front stoop. From my balcony perch, I found myself holding my breath, hoping that she wouldn’t fall.

One night, I took my trash out to the dumpsters behind the building, where it was always dark enough for murder. I passed Sylvia and said “hello.” She said “hello” back. I dumped my bag and heard it thump—twice. Strange.

I headed back around the hedge-lined side of the building and almost tripped over Sylvia. She had been the second thump; she’d fallen stomach-flat on the walk.

“My nose, my nose, my nose!” she chanted, her hands flapping at the space around her face.

I helped her up. “Are you OK?”     

“Is it bleeding?”

I could just make out a middle glisten between her bright black eyes.

Sounding congested, she replied, “I had a nose job years ago, and I landed full on it! I’ve come up that path a thousand times, a thousand times!”

I helped her to the front stoop and into her apartment. I’d never been inside. She headed for her bathroom, and I noticed that our places were mirror images of each other. But her hallway was hung with empty frames—old gilty ones of varying thicknesses and quality. Above them hung the only filled frame: a portrait of Sylvia.

I froze. I felt goose bumps lift from every pore as I remembered a dream I’d had the night before. I had dreamt of her hallway—that I’d never seen—lined with the empty frames I was gaping at now.

And that very afternoon, I had come inside from my balcony to escape the heat and paint. Strains of a Bach cello suite filtered through the ceiling. I pulled out a large sheet of paper, and something new happened: with my first dozen strokes of black paint, there was Sylvia, leaning forward and looking down like she did when descending stairs, always wary of falling. I added a quick patch of cadmium red for her sweater. Done. I stood back. I’d been painting women for years, but never a particular woman. Never a recognizable one. I called my downstairs neighbor, fellow poet, to come up. The minute she walked in, she said, “You’ve painted Sylvia.”

And now, there I was, helping the woman I’d painted into my car, driving her to Moses Cone Hospital.

I barely remember the short trip, just that she offered me $5 for the favor, and I refused—and then she refused to let me wait for her. She smiled, hand to nose, and waved me off.

Though I saw her coming and going over the next academic year, we didn’t mention her fall. The next spring, I moved. I never saw her again.  


A dozen years after that brief time in the South, I found myself attending a school of supernatural ministry in northern California. That is another story altogether. I attended because I had heard the curriculum incorporated art into its spiritual practice. I studied in the prophetic art track and began doing spiritual “portraits” of fellow students and eventually at the annual conferences. When I left, I created my own prophetic art curriculum.

I had completely forgotten the piece that started it all: my portrait of Sylvia. It wasn’t until I was going through old slides recently that I found her portrait. When I held that slide to the light, the hubris of my early twenties returned—how I had thought I was completely different than Sylvia because I worked in the esoteric world of poetry and never had a nose job. Now I see that we both know what it is to fall headlong into our lives, to break back open what we hoped had healed.

But here’s the strangest thing I didn’t see until just this moment, right as I’m thinking I’ve brought this story full circle. These days, I write standing in the stairwell of my little loft. If I stand part way up my stairs, I can use the half-wall bookshelf at the top as a stand-up desk. Resting my eyes, I turn and look down my hallway. A few months back, I hung half-a-dozen empty frames on the wall. Though I’ve seen similar decor many times since the night I stood in Sylvia’s apartment, I know the idea formed while waiting for her wipe the blood from her nose. Waiting for myself to paint my own life portrait as a writer and artist.

The realization makes my legs shake. I sit down on a stair, somewhere between the top and the bottom, between my understanding and my complete lack thereof. I lean against the wall and smile.

Here’s to us, Sylvia. May the angle of our leaning be sweet.