Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Plate

I think it came from Canada: a rectangular china plate, hand-painted with pink and blue cornflowers, edged in gold. I remember it from the house on Garfield Street, where we lived from the time I was five until I was nine. I see the dining room of that house, but where the plate was kept in that room, I can’t remember—if it was even kept there at all. I remember looking at the plate, though: the way I felt filled up looking at it, believing one day it would be mine. When or how it was broken is something else I don’t remember, just that terrible sense of something done that can’t be undone—and feeling cheated and angry, as if something had been stolen from me. One beautiful thing, the only beautiful thing in our house and now it was gone.

Years later, I’m in Chicago, visiting an eccentric woman who befriended me at a writers’ conference. It’s the early Eighties, and she’s heavily into the various spiritual opportunities currently on offer: mantras, meditation, rapture workshops, connecting with prior lives.

“We’ve got to do the float tank,” she said the minute I arrived. She had an ecstatic experience when she floated a few weeks before, she told me, emerging as if into a whole new world pulsing with color, shot through with light. She wrote madly for days afterwards, visions she had in the tank tumbling on to the page.

The same thing will happen to me, she says. She’s certain of it.

The float tank place is in a strip of storefronts in a seedy Chicago neighborhood, the El clattering above it. There’s a desk at the entrance, tended by a Zen-like guy, who gives us some basic instructions then directs us through beaded curtains to our separate rooms, where we will each climb into our coffin-like tank, pull the top down over us, and float in eighteen inches of saline solution, in utter darkness for an hour.

“It’s black, black, black, black, black,” my friend says, as we part. Then, suddenly, it’s like your mind becomes a movie screen.”

I climb in. Wait.

There will probably be a moment of panic, the attendant warned. There is. I breathe deeply, as he suggested. Then all the tension in my body rushes to the base of my neck, and I can’t get comfortable, can’t trust the water to hold me. I keep breathing. I play the little mind game I play sometimes when I can’t sleep, starting with “A” and going through the alphabet, letting a word float up for each letter, surprising myself by the patterns my mind seems determined to make.

No images come, nothing the least bit ecstatic is happening. Am I doing this wrong?

Tentatively, I stretch my arms and legs to find the edges of the tank, I make a kind of fish-like move to let the soft, slick water slosh over my body, and finally I start to calm down. The stillness surrounding me starts to feel good. I like the way I can’t quite tell where my body ends and the water begins. The way odd memories float up and dissolve.

Then, suddenly, the plate appears as real as anything, touchable, in my mind’s eye: the pink and blue cornflowers, each edged in gold, each with a raised gold dot at its center. The paint is laid on unevenly, some of the cornflowers thick with it, others nearly translucent. I can see the drag of the painter’s brush in the gold paint along the plate’s perimeter.

I look and look, drink it in as I did as a child, marveling, full of joy—until a crack appears at the top of it. I watch it move in slow motion down through the center, watch the plate split cleanly in two, dissolving into darkness.

I feel punched by grief. For days afterwards, at the most unlikely times, the image of the plate breaking appears in my mind’s eye and overwhelms me all over again. Like my friend, I’ve come from the float tank into a different world, but mine is one in which even the smallest things seem unbearably sad.

Years pass again. I am in San Sepolcro, Italy, standing before Piero della Francesca’s “Madonna della Misericordia Altapiece,” paralyzed by the disconcerting mix of happiness and longing I feel. I’ve been studying Piero for months now, but I can’t remember a single thing I know about the painting. I feel drunk by the color. The Madonna’s pink gown glows. She’s monumental against the hammered gold background, gazing down through heavily lidded eyes upon the penitents crowding at her feet. The pink of her gown is repeated in their capes and gowns and collars. It accents the blue gown of the woman kneeling closest to her.

It appears again and again throughout the altarpiece, in the robe thrown over the shoulder of John the Baptist to the right of her, and in the book held by the saint at his left and in the garment draped over his arm. It’s there in the smaller annunciate angel above her. His lips are parted slightly, as if whispering. He’s in profile against that same gold background, his right hand raised to gain attention, his back foot arched, pitching him into forward motion. His blue gown blouses beautifully at the waist, where it’s held by a slash of pink. He has pink shoes, too, and a pink headband holds back his hair. Across from him, on the other side of the crucified Christ, Mary leans ever so slightly toward him, her right hand emerging from her blue cape to press, fingers splayed, against the drenched pink of her dress.

The colors shimmer: blue and pink and gold.

The colors of the cornflower plate.

Once I realize this, I see them everywhere along the Piero Trail. In Pilate’s pink tunic in “The Flagellation,” in the Madonna’s pink gown, the angel’s blue blouse in the annunciation panel of the Perugia altarpiece, in the Arezzo cycle’s marvelous Byzantine hats.

I am flooded with happiness at this sudden understanding. No wonder I am in love with these paintings, I think. No wonder I want to drink them in, to memorize them against that old loss I only half remember. I appreciate the genius behind the paintings, of course: the elegance of the architecture, how the power of color sits in balance with it, the control Piero brought to the craft. But what they bring me near tears to contemplate is, ultimately, myself.

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