Life, Sylvia. Life.

I hadn’t factored in all the snow. It reflected the chalk sky already infused with murky smears. It would prove difficult for my simple camera, too much, then too little, available light. After half an hour my fingers were getting frostbitten and the wind was coming up, yet I stubbornly kept taking pictures. I hoped the sun would return and I irrationally shot, using all of my film. None of the pictures were good. I was numb with cold but couldn’t bear to leave. It was such a desolate place in winter, so lonely. Why had her husband buried her here? I wondered. Why not New England by the sea, where she was born, where salt winds could spiral over the name PLATH etched in her native stone? I had an uncontrollable urge to urinate and imagined spilling a small stream, some part of me wanting her to feel that proximate human warmth.

Life, Sylvia. Life.

The bucket of pens was gone, perhaps retired for winter. I went through my pockets, extracting a small spiral notebook, a purple ribbon, and a cotton lisle sock with a bee embroidered near the top. I tied the ribbon around them and tucked them by her headstone. The last of the light faded as I trudged back to the heavy gate. It was only as I approached the car that the sun appeared and now with a vengeance. I turned just as a voice whispered:

—Don’t look back, don’t look back.

It was as if Lot’s wife, a pillar of salt, had toppled on the snow-covered ground and spread a lengthening heat melting all in its path. The warmth drew life, drawing out tufts of green and a slow procession of souls. Sylvia, in a cream-colored sweater and straight skirt, shading her eyes from the mischievous sun, walking on into the great return.

In early spring I visited Sylvia Plath’s grave for a third time, with my sister Linda. She longed to journey through Brontë country and so we did together. We traced the steps of the Brontë sisters and then traveled up the hill to trace mine. Linda delighted in the overgrown fields, the wildflowers, and the Gothic ruins. I sat quietly by the grave, conscious of a rare, suspended peace.

Spanish pilgrims travel on Camino de Santiago from monastery to monastery, collecting small medals to attach to their rosary as proof of their steps. I have stacks of Polaroids, each marking my own, that I sometimes spread out like tarots or baseball cards of an imagined celestial team. There is now one of Sylvia in spring. It is very nice, but lacking the shimmering quality of the lost ones. Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.

Patti Smith, M Train, 2015.

Stray tinsel embedded in the wet leaves

I climb the stairs to my room with its lone skylight, a worktable, a bed, my brother’s Navy flag, bundled and tied by his own hand, and a small armchair draped in threadbare linen set back in the corner by the window. I shed my coat, time to get on with it. I have a fine desk but I prefer to work from my bed, as if I’m a convalescent in a Robert Louis Stevenson poem. An optimistic zombie propped by pillows, producing pages of somnambulistic fruit—not quite ripe or overripe. Occasionally I write directly into my small laptop, sheepishly glancing over to the shelf where my typewriter with its antiquated ribbon sits next to an obsolete Brother word processor. A nagging allegiance prevents me from scrapping either of them. Then there are the scores of notebooks, their contents calling—confession, revelation, endless variations of the same paragraph—and piles of napkins scrawled with incomprehensible rants. Dried-out ink bottles, encrusted nibs, cartridges for pens long gone, mechanical pencils emptied of lead. Writer’s debris.

I skip Thanksgiving, dragging my malaise through December, with a prolonged period of enforced solitude, though sadly without crystalline effect. In the mornings I feed the cats, mutely gather my things, and then make my way across Sixth Avenue to Café ’Ino, sitting at my usual table in the corner drinking coffee, pretending to write, or writing in earnest, with more or less the same questionable results. I avoid social commitments and aggressively arrange to spend the holidays alone. On Christmas Eve I present the cats with catnip-enhanced mice toys and exit aimlessly into the vacant night, finally landing near the Chelsea Hotel at a movie theater offering a late showing of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I buy my ticket and a large black coffee and a bag of organic popcorn at the corner deli, and then settle in my seat in the back of the theater. Just me and a score of slackers, comfortably isolated from the world, attaining our own brand of holiday well-being, no gifts, no Christ child, no tinsel or mistletoe, only a sense of complete freedom. I liked the looks of the movie. I had already seen the Swedish version without subtitles but hadn’t read the books, so now I would be able to piece together the plot and lose myself in the bleak Swedish landscape.

It was after midnight when I walked home. It was a relatively mild night and I felt an overriding sense of calm that slowly bled into a desire to be home in my own bed. There were few signs of Christmas on my empty street, just some stray tinsel embedded in the wet leaves. I said goodnight to the cats stretched out on the couch, and as I headed upstairs to my room, Cairo, an Abyssinian runt with a coat the color of the pyramids, followed at my heels. There I unlocked a glass cabinet and carefully unwrapped a Flemish crèche consisting of Mary and Joseph, two oxen, and a babe in his cradle, and arranged them on the top of my bookcase. Carved from bone, they had developed a golden patina through two centuries of age. How sad, I thought, admiring the oxen, that they are only displayed at Christmastide. I wished the babe a happy birthday and removed the books and papers from my bed, brushed my teeth, turned down the coverlet, and let Cairo sleep on my stomach.

Patti Smith, M Train, 2015.