I like the Laura Gilpin photograph best of everything at the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Legion of Honor, better even than the utterly purple—almost black—petunias, the drenched colors of the other flowers. It seems to me a perfect portrait of the artist, though she isn’t actually in it. A portrait of those things that have made her what she is, which names the exhibition: “The Poetry of Things.” A row of oil paints in silver tubes, paintbrushes of various widths and bristles, a horn curved like an elongated S, a little puddle of river rocks, the Abiquiu desert country beyond.
In other of the paintings and photographs there are the rough Penitente crosses said to be place holders in the vast desert space; the door and the covered well in the patio where she grew desert sage; a little track of sunlight across an adobe wall; shells and bones from the high desert, once the bed of an ancient sea. These bleached things are restful but evocative, like the Greek temples with their garish paint worn off which we imagine were intended that way.
All these things remind me of a past I never had.
Last summer I went to Taos for the first time, though I grew up only two hours away. I’d always been led to believe it was prohibitively far or hard to get to. I was angry for what I knew then I had missed, for having been kept from what might have filled in some of the holes in me, without such a struggle. I didn’t get it.
“Why didn’t we ever go to Taos?”
“I never liked Taos much,” my mother said. “It’s sort of weird.”
As am I, Mother, I want to say, but as usual don’t.
I took pictures of blue doors all afternoon, and bought soap with juniper berries, then drove out to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, five miles of dirt road in from the highway in a canyon just north of Taos. The best part of the day, which I almost, feeling guilty, skipped—late aready getting back to Santa Fe.
The drive was through gorgeous New Mexico countryside, that high desert, with sage, rabbit brush, piney green hills, a shimmer of cottonwoods wherever there’s any possibility of or memory of water, and the beautiful substantial clouds, clouds piled by wind. The ranch was given to Lawrence’s wife Frieda by Mabel Dodge Luhan (whose spinach enchilada recipe we have, or once had) in exchange for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers. Sitting on a wooden worktable inside the window of his cottage is his old manual typewriter, and in a line or two the story is there. I took a picture of the blue bench under the high pine tree where he sometimes sat and wrote or gazed up into the cathedral-tall branches that Georgia O’Keeffe later painted when she stayed in the cottage.
Her painting of that pine is in the show at the Legion of Honor. We got so close there, for a just a minute, years apart.
But back in Santa Fe I am unsure again. And I am unforgivably late.
Maybe I will live in New Mexico again someday, but on my own terms. I’ll take the fossil fish that’s on my writing desk, the white shells from Cape Cod, my Greek octopus pot, the postcard of “Black and Purple Petunias.” Maybe I will regret what I’ve become, in exile, when I look back. I’ll speak bitingly of The California Years. I wonder if I might even live in Taos someday, or if it’s too late for that? I’ll frame the triptych I’ve made of my photographs of the Ranchos de Taos church and the monastery on Santorini six years ago, which are so remarkably alike. The world I’ve found for myself has turned out to be very like that other one I never knew was there.
Maybe someday I will bleach too, like the pieces of wood and bone the artist loved, and maybe then, maybe in my old age, I won’t seem weird any more—or will at least stop minding that I irrevokably am.