Here is the next installment of Beatrice Allen Page’s unpublished manuscript, Landscape With Figures:
“Something happened this morning which I wish I could put into words and keep forever, so that to reread the words would be to rekindle the wonderment of the experience. I know I can’t. There aren’t any words. I can only vaguely suggest it, as if I were trying to tell what a tree looks like by describing its shadow.
I had taken a walk along the beach and then crossed the base of the Point to the rocky shore to sit for a little while in one of my favorite spots down close to the water. I could tell it was going to be a hot day – not a cloud in the sky, not a puff of air, the sea as smooth as China silk. But the sun had not been up long enough to warm the granite. It was still cool from the night and the ebb tide that had recently washed over it. And no matter how limp with heat the day might become later, at that hour it was still fresh and slightly salty, and so clear that the cried of some terns diving for fish sounded as if they were being etched on it like a design on fine glass.
The water, too, was so transparent that I could look down through its green calm and see the wavy sand ridges at the bottom. The ripples slipping over the periphery of the ledge might have been liquid glass. The very sound of the water gurgling through gaps and hollows had a cool, limpid quality.
The whole world was suspended in such a serene clarity that I felt as if I were gazing into a crystal ball. My mind, too, felt extraordinarily clear and still. Not that I was thinking profound thoughts. On the contrary I was not conscious of thinking at all; I only felt unusually…awake, I think, is the right word.
Then out of the blue there brushed across my mind and senses, lightly as the flicker of a butterfly’s wing, an impression – my inclination is to say a realization – that a veil so sheer as to be invisible hung between the world I was looking at another world, or an unsuspected realm of the familiar world, and I could almost…almost…see through it. I was on the very brink of apprehending an incredible revelation and I was filled with an expectation and joy too deep for words.
The moment came and went in the span of an eyewink and I was left with a feeling of loss and longing but at the same time gratitude and astonishment that once again after all my ‘noisy years’ in Wordsworth’s phrase, I should have recovered for an instant a hint of the ‘visionary gleam.’ I can count such moments on the fingers of one hand.
The first – at least the first I remember – occurred on a day in early spring. I may have been seven or eight or nine, I don’t recall. It started out like any other day. I dressed and came downstairs at the usual time, but breakfast was not quite ready and I wandered out in the backyard to wait. It must have been April because the yellow forsythia bush by the back door (we were living in the winter house then) was in full bloom. I sat down in the swing that hung from a large elm. I remember the sensation of a little current of air laying itself softly across the back of my neck like a chiffon scarf. I remember other trivia: letting the toes of my shoes scuff the ground as I swung negligently back and forth, a window shade going up across the street. And a robin searching for a worm – the quick little run across the grass, the pause with head cocked to listen, the quick little run again.
Watching the robin I was suddenly struck with how green the grass was. I had never seen grass so green. I could smell and taste the greenness. It even seemed to me (probably fusing the signing of song sparrows with the color) that I could hear it. The yellow forsythia, which only a moment or two before I had thought of as ‘pretty,’ now made the same extraordinary impact on me.
Beyond or within these sensuous impressions, every individual blossom, every blade of grass, every swelling bud on the maples, every bird call held a secret that was about to be revealed to me. The whole world was on the verge of unfolding, of opening like a flower and I would be able to see into the very heart of it, into its hidden meaning. I would understand everything.
I felt an almost unbearable long and suspense. I was standing on figurative tiptoe, on the very threshold of something unspeakably wonderful. Then, as unpredictably as it had started to ‘open,’ the world closed again. Not with a snap; it was just that one moment I’d had a glimpse into heaven and the next minute I was standing in my own backyard again where the forsythia was ‘pretty’ and the grass was green and the birds were singing and my mother would be calling me any minute to come in to breakfast. That was all. I was more surprised than disappointed this first time to have had the door closed in my face, so to speak, because I assumed that whatever had happened once could happen again, or that I could make it happen.
Morning after morning I slipped out of the house before breakfast trying to evoke the mystifying experience by my own efforts. I stared at every tree and shrub and flower as it came into leaf and bloom that spring. I kept thinking that if I just looked hard enough, I would really be able to see into the heart of things and understand everything. It seemed to me that in addition to my physical eyes, I had an inward, mental eye which I imagined as being inside my head between my eyebrows. If I could learn to see with this eye…And so I strained with all my eyes until the physical ones watered and the mental one ached behind my forehead, but all to no avail.
Then I tried to recapture the sensation, not what I had almost seen but what I had felt, of what I called in my mind The Magic, the only name I could think of for something inexpressible. In this context the word had no connotation of trickery. It meant, rather, something altogether mysterious and wonderful, which had given me a mixed feeling of joy and sadness. There had been a strange quality about the sadness, however, that made it far more to be desired than any ordinary happiness. I could remember this, that is I could remember that I had felt that way but I could not recover the feeling itself.
At long last I gave up. I still did not realize that it was my very effort to pry open the door that closed it tighter. I felt obscurely that nature had betrayed or deserted me. So, a little vengefully, I put nature out of my mind. I sought out the other children in the neighborhood, I played hid-and-go-seek outdoors and cut out paper dolls indoors and behaved, as my mother expressed it, like a normal child instead of mooning about by myself.
Months passed, perhaps even a year or so – I am unclear as to dates – when once more The Magic took me unawares. I had gone to my grandmother’s house for lunch. It must have been a cold winter day because, although I recall nothing about the walk to her house – whether there was snow on the ground for instance – I do recall sitting on the floor in her front hall tugging off my leggings and the bits of frozen snow clinging to my blue mittens, which I had dropped on the rug beside me.
If I was unhappy or upset or something, I have forgotten. What I remember, though, is the sudden lift of the heart as I walked into her sitting-room and my glance fell on the small globe, like a goldfish bowl, which she had filled with moss and partridge berries. I had helped her look for them in the woods that fall. I must have seen the little terrarium dozens of times. I have no idea why on this particular day I was suddenly so enchanted by the bright red berries nestled among the various shade of green. It was not The Magic – I had no thought of that – it was just a simple pleasure in what I saw. I walked over to it, and leaned over to smell it. One whiff and I was back in the autumn woods, down on my knees with my fingers probing into the moist earth to dig up a clump of moss, the smell of leaf-mold in my nostrils, and the stillness all around me broken only by a squirrel bounding over the fallen leaves, and our own instinctively subdued voices. The recollection was poignantly vivid, but it was still not The Magic and I still had no thought of that.
Then, without any intimation, for one ineffable moment the woods opened into all woods, all over the world, throughout all time, into the very essence of woods, into something beyond words which filled me with both an anguish and a rapture. It was The Magic.
It came and went in an instant but before that instant was up, I was certain this time I could hold it. It was caught, after all, in that small globe where it could not escape me. Again and again after it passed I took deep breaths until I was dizzy but The Magic had fled. It grew more and more remote in the way a scent loses its vividness when one smells of it repeatedly.
At long last I realized The Magic could never be summoned like a genie – as I was to learn later about ‘the northern mood.’ It happened or it didn’t happen. There was, at least, the hope it might come soon some day again when I was not expecting it.
A few times after that, at long intervals, I felt that I had missed it by less than a fraction of a hair’s breadth. In each instance I was suddenly astonished by an impression that the whole earth was covered with an invisible veil. I yearned with all my mind and heart and soul to brush it away because I knew that behind the veil lay The Magic. Then eventually I understood the veil as not outside me; it was the mental eye inside my head whose vision was obscured. I knew that no amount of straining and determination could make the scales fall from that eye. I could only wait and hope for that inner vision to clear so that I could really see and understand.
It never cleared quite enough. Always just as I was on the most delicate featheredge of the longed-for revelation, the world assumed its everyday appearance again. Yet strangely, in spite of the blighted hope there was joy, too, in the conviction that what I called The Magic was no fanciful notion but a reality – a conviction which faded with the years but which I almost regained this morning, and would have if reason had not restrained me.
I’m sure these seeming glimpses into something beyond or within ordinary observation must occur in every child’s life. What puzzles me is that no one ever speaks of them, and occasionally when I have tentatively mentioned my own experiences, it has – like ‘the northern mood’ – stimulated no responsive chord. You would expect people to cherish such memories and compare notes and speculate about the meaning. It must be that people forget, perhaps because they want to forget a joy they fear can never be found again.
There may be many examples in literature but only rarely have I happened on one. Wordsworth springs to mind at once. I think there was a time when, if I had known the poem, I could have believed with him that ‘the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower’ is not an intuition of something never before perceived but a dim memory of a life before birth – hence the element of nostalgia and the feeling, as with ‘the northern mood,’ of something far away and long ago.
The only other description I have ever read of a childhood experience similar to what I called The Magic occurs in Bernard Berenson’s Sketch for a Self-Portrait. He tells of a morning in early summer when a silver haze shimmered over the lime trees and the soft air was laden with their fragrance. Sitting on a tree stump, happy in the outdoors, he felt suddenly ‘immersed in Itness.’ It was a moment of perfect harmony, an ecstasy, the memory of which remained his touchstone forever after, a reminder of his life’s true goal.
I wonder, could that nameless longing I felt one wakeful night not long ago have been for the long lost Magic?
Looking back over my life now, after this morning’s fleeting percipience, I know that if I could hold on to whatever gifts of graces a fairy godmother may have bestowed upon me at birth, the one I would choose about all is that sense of The Magic hidden within the beauty and mystery of creation.
And so July comes to an end and I realize with a little shock the summer is half over.”