For an artist whose surviving works number fewer than three dozen, Vermeer sure painted a high percentage of women with letters in their hands. There’s something about the acts of correspondence that must have fascinated him or perhaps reminded him of the artistic process (something that also involves stages of composition, delivery and “reading”). The painting on my mind today is this one by Vermeer of a woman in yellow. She is setting down her pen to look up at a maidservant who hands her a letter. The woman in yellow touches her fingertips to her chin in a gesture of astonishment…or is it embarrassment? Who knows? Vermeer always leaves more unsaid than said which is what I love most about his art. What we do know is that in this particular painting, the letter has not even left the maidservant’s hand—let alone been opened—but its delivery, the identify of the sender, and maybe even the letter’s presumed contents are enough to fill the moment with potential.
To me, the odd thing about this painting is that it revolves around an empty space: the darkness between the two women. The center of the painting is the gap between the letter itself and the hand that will reach out to take it (…in just a minute, just as soon as she gets over her surprise). The real action takes place in that gap, like a neural synapse. I wonder what new thoughts, emotions and actions the handoff will spark. The air is volatile, the story charged up for a moment of complication. Letters are mercurial things. Like the god Mercury himself—the delivery boy of mythology—they bring about shifts of fate and unforeseen consequences. If nothing else, letters can alter our moods in mercurial ways. Typically, in my mailboxes (both email and the U.S. Postal Service variety) I find good news and bad news, exciting news and more of the usual. But it’s the anticipation of the unopened, unread, or perhaps even unexpected letter that makes me put down my pen (or click the minimize button in my Word document or take Nora’s hand for a short walk out to the corner of the front yard) to see what is waiting for me.
Here’s what was waiting for me yesterday.
In my morning email:
Very bad news from my oldest brother who is suffering from a serious health problem followed by another email from my second-oldest brother comparing my brother’s serious health problem to an episode of Star Trek. I love my family.
A message informing me that my entry has won an essay contest (accompanied by the very excellent news of a financial award and publication). I’ll post a link when the time comes.
Later, in my snail mailbox:
A copy of the Spring issue of Brain, Child with my published essay. It looked lovely and gives me such a boost of writerly confidence that I feel like starting a novel right this very second. (Sorry, my essay isn’t “clickable” on the Brain, Child website. I hear you can get it at Barnes & Noble. If you live in Utah, I'll let you read my copy, okay?)
A letter disguised as an urgent telegram informing us for the bazillionth time that a particular company will graciously extend our car warranty. I’m certainly tempted to trust my business to a company that uses telegrams.
And in a bonus afternoon package:
This book for Ethan, which sent him into orbit since he’s been saving up for this purchase for several weeks and could hardly stand the 5-7 day gap between pushing the “Add to shopping cart” button and the slicing open of the box.
Also in the box (but not nearly so fantastically Lucasfilmy) was my book group assignment for the month: Ahab’s Wife. I need to get started on it since I only have 2 weeks to make it through 666 pages (well there’s an ominous number. You’d think they’d stretch the font out somewhere to avoid coming up with that amount). I love opening new books almost as much as I love opening mail, don't you?