from the white place

by Amy D.

Sunday called for a sojourn. I decided to take a break from myself, with myself. (It’s possible.) I hopped the D6 to Dupont, where I spent a good portion of my day honing the under-appreciated skills of meandering, and of being alone.

Whim suggested The Phillips Collection; I acquiesced. While wandering the corridors, lingering at the pieces which gripped me for reasons unknown, I overheard a woman observe how museum-goers often engage in a phenomenon she called the Museum Walk: a slow, silent shuffle, heel-toe, heel-toe. Hesitant. Reverent. Like treading shards of glass, or approaching a wild deer.

I museum-walked my way to a Georgia O’Keeffe painting titled “From the White Place.” This particular piece had held my gaze, and stilled my thoughts, during my last visit to the Collection. Why this piece? Lord knows.

The White Place is real: Plaza Blanca, near O’Keeffe’s former home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I wonder why or how those cliffs compelled her to take up the brush. A Black Place (both place and painting) exists, too. When I hear “Black Place,” I do not think darkness or doom. I imagine the great, gulping infinity of a black hole, galaxies rolling in waves, an endless tide smeared with stars. When I hear “White Place,” I think Nothing. A blank page, a waiting canvas. I remember my favorite chapter in Moby-Dick,  “The Whiteness of the Whale,” and the absolute fear and awe it inspired on first reading. I imagine a wintry wasteland, dormant, with the potential to wake or stay sleeping forever.

Terrifying, yes? And liberating. I found a White Place in the Laib Wax Room, a curious exhibition—a chamber—”lined with fragrant beeswax and illuminated by a single bare light bulb.” Every visit I like to step inside, stand beneath the bulb, and shut my eyes. I inhale the faint, milky-sweet scent of the wax, and I go to the White Place for a while. There I feel embryonic. Erased.

At the crowded museum café, I kicked back with tea and The Graveyard Book, only to be approached by a server who asked if I might share my table with a “very sweet lady.” Of course I obliged. Once the woman joined me, I greeted her and debated introducing myself, but sensed that neither she, nor I, were there for that purpose. So I returned to my book and retreated to the White Place. I faded away. After she departed, the same server approached me and asked if I would share my table with another patron. I obliged again. The server grinned and said, “Will you stay here all day? You make a perfect Table for One.”

To his dismay I could not stay all day. I ventured to a group meet up, where I sat at a Table for Thirty-Plus and played cards. There is a time to be alone, to escape to the White Place and make a Table for One. But there is also a time to raise your eyes and meet the gaze of the person seated across from you, lest you get lost in that wintry wasteland and fade away completely.

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