Role Models

Patti Smith wanted to be Rimbaud.  In “Just Kids,” she describes her pilgrimage to the Rimbaud museum in France.  And her attempts to dress like him.  I wanted to be Madeleine L’Engle.  And Man Ray.

I am a little L’Engle: Episcopalian (partly her influence, but T.S. Eliot helped), frequenter of Broadway plays, introvert, demurely and thoughtfully defiant.  And I’m different: lover of clothes and paintings, midwesterner, childless.  She cooked and moved out to the country in her 30s.  She married an actor and raised several children.

L’Engle lived in New York City in the 1940s, and she made that a dreamscape for me.  Eva Le Gallienne, the rips and tears of the war, automats, walking by the East River on summer nights to cool off, doing dishes in the bathtub.  I learned “walk-up” and “cold water flat.”  She was also a good writer, a solid writer.  Not a dazzling one.  She has one dazzling, famous book, “A Wrinkle In Time,” and a lot of other books I love only because I love her.

It’s good to have an artist you love with attainable work.  I think I can write books as good as hers.  She taught me pthat patience and stability are what keep you productive, not drama and self-destruction.  Although a little self-destruction is fun.  I’m not sure L’Engle ever got silly drunk or climbed up in a treehouse in the middle of the night or collected wind-up toys or drove a convertible or paraded at Mardi Gras or smoked cigars.  She was more serious than me.

It’s hard to choose who I’d want to be in Paris in the 1920s.  Not Hemingway.  He bores me.  Not Gertrude Stein, although she was a badass, she seems mean.  Not Henry Miller.  He’s too much for me.  So, maybe Man Ray.  He seemed to have a good time, lots of laughs, and also produce some important work.  He liked to play chess, and I am constitutionally incapable of playing chess.  Maybe I could play euchre.

You want to be barefoot in Paris in the 20s, and you’d always be tipsy and never drunk, and it would always be nighttime, and people would always be drawing on napkins, and the conversation would be constantly delightful.  And people would be wearing great hats.  Plastic would not exist.  The world was glass and metal and wood.  I would be sad about my hair being so short, but c’est la vie.

When you are a reader, and an introvert, these people and these scenes you read about are almost more real than your flesh and blood.  You couldn’t be there with them, once upon a time.  You are with them all the time, and whenever you want to be.

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