The Met - creative nonfiction by Alexandra Carpenter
Museums have a funny way of making me like myself more.
I say this after years of being pulled along with my parents to lots of different ones; at some point, I realized that I wasn't being pulled along, but was a willing participant. Going to museums is like looking at oneself in a very clean, very small mirror, in that they make one seem beautiful and sophisticated in a faraway, private way.
More specifically, I say this because I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art about two months ago, and that was maybe the last time I really liked myself. On the last day of our family trip, my mom and I took the 4-5-6 to 77th Street and walked the seven blocks to the museum. It was February and windy. Walking in the front doors was a relief from the frozen ache of the New York streets. The lobby soared out ahead of us, a pale dream of marble. It felt almost subterranean, the air earthy and swaddled in blue-toned shadows. The high ceilings reduced all conversation to a low, reverberating hum. We bought tickets from a friendly-looking college kid, asked for two maps. My mom wanted to look at modern art. I wanted to look at everything. We decided to split up.
I started with the Impressionists. The paintings were soft, faded landscapes of fields and flowers, towns bathing in pink light. Warm breeze, church bells echoing in sunny cobblestone streets. They're the most popular, and also my favorite. I couldn't help but climb into the frame of a Cezanne, waiting until the museum guards were looking away and then carefully hoisting myself into his little town. I spent a while drifting through summery French countryside and quaint villages, tumbling gently through whorls of Van Gogh, twirling with Degas' ballerinas. At some point my mom found me and told me that she was leaving and I could meet her when I was done. I was elsewhere.
My wandering took me to the Renaissance paintings. These were more intimidating. I was dumped, unceremoniously, out of the frames. Brushing pollen and sunlight off my sweater, I looked up. My breath caught. Against the soaring white walls were canvasses the size of houses, with dark oil outlines of Jesus and the angels or Roman temples—and suddenly I was dizzy. It was capital G Grand. I felt like I was supposed to get it in some profound way, like as I gazed, awed, at the fifteen-foot emperors and their reverent subjects, I was supposed to understand Machiavelli's The Prince or the fundamentals of democracy or something. Mostly my neck hurt from craning upwards. I spent a while trying to understand, realized that I couldn't, and decided to take a break.
I found my way to the cafe and bought overpriced coffee with some of my tutoring money. I felt very sophisticated, and also a little bit stupid, being alone in a public place, surrounded by tables of people chatting in the sunny atrium. I liked sitting down, finally. My feet were tired. I was a little annoyed that my body was giving up on the museum thing before my mind wanted to. Usually I pretend that my consciousness, rather than its host body, is in control. My mind runs the show here! I wanted to prove it. Even if only to myself. I finished my coffee and got up to go look at the Greek and Roman statues.
The statues were in a wide hallway, with each figure spaced several feet apart, careful to remain at a respectful distance. I met the statues one at a time, talked a little with each. What good conversationalists! I began to understand what they were thinking. Each man and woman, with their hands on their faces, or kneeling, or looking stridently forward, or back over their shoulders with—what is it that are you feeling? Regret? Longing? Melancholy? I ask because I think you might be able to tell me what it is that I'm feeling, dear statue. It was pleasant company, the kind between close friends where there aren't any expectations, just two people moving closer to one another. Or a person and a statue. Or maybe even two statues. Who's to say?
"Excuse me. Miss!" and it was then that I realized that I was the only person in the room that the museum guard could be talking to. I turned.
"The museum is closing."
"Oh, sorry! Sorry. I didn't realize."
So I got my coat, pushed through the tall glass doors, and walked through the cold early dusk to the subway. The next day, we drove home from our brief vacation. I really wanted to see the Hudson River School paintings, too, but I guess it wasn't meant to be.
In the dizzy archives of memory, I've come across something resembling a proper distraction: a better version of myself. I learned some nice things about myself at the Met. I can make friends with Greek statues, cappuccinos are delicious, I have a lot of energy for looking at art. These are nice, soft facts. I fold them like clean white undershirts, stack them neatly on the shelves, unfold and refold. It's perhaps obsessive. I liked myself so much on that day. But we don't have the luxury of living in our beautiful escapes. That's a privilege reserved for the paintings.
Alex Carpenter is a high school senior in Massachusetts and is excited to be graduating soon. She likes the TV shows Brooklyn 99 and 30 Rock, instant macaroni, journaling, and tutoring elementary school kids in violin. Her favorite authors are Louise Erdrich and Virginia Woolf. She hopes you enjoy her writing.