Some days I have to invent reasons to get out of the house, to walk away from my desk and dissertation in the name of sanity or fresh air or just another human’s face, if nothing else. This is not a pity party, by the way. Just this moment’s reality, self-induced and (thankfully) fleeting.
Last week it was Camden Market. A short walk down the street and one bus ten minutes across Primrose Hill. I went with purpose: there was a shop in the Stables’ stalls that sells architectural drafts of stained glass windows and, though I can’t justify pounds sterling in the hundreds, I wanted to see them again. I like in museums the unfinished things, preliminary sketches like Patrick Heron’s charcoal drawings of T.S. Eliot, or the ghostprints of St Jerome and his lion in Leonardo’s Wilderness, or the squares of Manet’s Execution of Maximilian stitched back together by Degas. I like seeing decisions made and unmade, all of them recorded, the raw end of a masterpiece — to me it strikes the balance right, the potential and the mess in equal measure. These sketches were like that. In February, when John and I first found the place, there were two ten-foot angels in the front doorway, the final drafts for a chapel in Sleepy Hollow, New York. They were nouveau work; bold solid lines, organic sensibilities. Pieces of them were colored, potential blues in wide stripes down the drapery, touches of rose and gold on their wings, and they held banners at their waist that fell diagonally to the floor — I can’t remember what they said, simple truths, straightforward things, like God is Strength or Hope and Light. In February they’d seemed like actual messengers, saying things I needed to hear. I hate that I’ve forgotten. I only remembered that I loved them, and one in particular. I wanted to see that angel again. I wanted to remember what her banner said. I think I wanted to convince myself I needed to bring her home.
But she wasn’t there. The shop wasn’t there. I walked the length of the stalls once and then over again, matching my memory to the current setup. Lot 745. I remembered the loft with a notch for a ladder. Before, a daughter in the eaves, playing behind cardboard barrels while her dad rearranged the stock. Now, umbrellas from Myanmar in place of parchment tubes, and the pretty woman selling them didn’t know anything about the previous tenant. I went to neighbors. Nothing. I went to security. Nothing. I talked to nine people and none of them even remembered the place’s existence. To be fair, I don’t know if I was doing a good job explaining. Stained glass sketches, I kept saying. Big boxes of rolled paper, like industrial school maps, but they were drafts for the windows in churches. From here, Europe, from the States. Oh and he sold pins! Thousands of them on felt panels along the walls. The collectible kind, you know, like you put in shadow boxes for a boy’s room? No?
So I went walking. I’d made the trip over anyhow, and if you know the Camden labyrinth then you know that you can never actually know it all. I could stand to get lost for another half hour. But we all know what happens when you get lost, right? You get a little found.
I walked into the shop because there were stacks of Tibetan singing bowls on a shelf behind buddhas organized by size, metal, and color. I’ve been looking for brass bowls to have on our reception tables in September, and the place looked promising. If I had looked closer I may have noticed it sooner: the shadow puppets on the walls, the bridal hair pins in the cup by the door. Instead it was the smell that hit me first, musty wood and dirty concrete, a faint floral note overpowered by heavy rain. It struck me like the monsoons it reminded me of — a two-second hint of a beginning, and then the deluge. I grabbed at a lintel carving from the nearest table, flipping it over to find a tag. 1904, it read. Jawa Timur.
A few weeks ago it was sickly humid in the city and coming in to work via tube was a sweaty gross sardine-style affair that made all the black suits extra grumpy and aimless tourists. But a part of me recognized the heat on the air, the thrum of traffic in the wet haze — something in me reveled in it. And you know those moments where some sight or smell or small bar of music smacks you through the soul with a memory not necessarily specific but all-encompassing? London, London, London, INDONESIA. A few weeks ago all it took was the fleeting second between stepping off a curb and into the street. I was turning off Tottenham Court Road but could’ve sworn it was instead the rubbled crossways in Tebet Dalam, that I was going to walk around the corner to eat rujak on broken benches while Ari chastised me for trying to pet every vagrant cat in the neighborhood. I nursed an empty ache between my rib bones the whole rest of the day, craving condensed milk and an open window on a Metro Mini.
So walking ignorant like that into Indostan (you would think the name might’ve given it away …?) nearly knocked the breath out of me. Boat letters! Krepuk tins! I visited each familiar face like I might puppies in a pet store, hungry to memorize them, desperate to make them mine. The end wall was one massive panel carved and painted bright turquoise, pink, red. From the ceiling hung model pinisi, gamelan pieces, bright colored dewi in full flight, arm-wings outstretched. Odd visions accompanied it all: sitting cross-legged on a dirty mattress with a toddler holding a hymnbook; morning light filtered pink through an old sarong across the window; thousands of candy wrappers tied to a tree — an old man’s mania. An art piece in homage to beauty in blunt places. I was delighted; I was devastated. It is unsettling to time travel.
I am still looking for the stained glass shop. I sent an email to the market managers but haven’t heard anything. The marrow seems heavier in my bones these days, thick with thinking. There’s a rhythm of Cummings beating there, too: time is a tree (this life one leaf).