My favorite letter by the poet Amy Clampitt is about a series of revelations she has on an early spring day in 1956, when she takes the subway to the Cloisters at the north end of Manhattan, to see the set of medieval unicorn tapestries:
“Before then I had been inclined to regard tapestry, even so marvelous a specimen of it, as a minor art, a sort of inferior brand of painting. But on that afternoon, while I wandered in and out, visually speaking, among the little wild strawberries, the bluebells and daisies and periwinkles and dozens of other flowers (so faithfully rendered that nearly all have been botanically identified) which are woven into the background of each of the scenes of the hunt, for the very reason that is was a composite work rather than that of a single individual — and not only composite but anonymous; not only the weavers, but the designer and even the place of origin are unknown, and even for whom it was commissioned is a matter of conjecture — I found it more satisfactory than painting.”
I love the way Clampitt honors collectivity and anonymity here, because I wonder whether, in a culture that honors the individual, we’re unsure of what to make of these qualities. If we don’t get credit for what we do, how can we put it on our resume? How will our labor help us advance, get health insurance, feed our families? Yet so many necessary acts depend on our working together, without hope of recognition — from stopping a car to help someone, to creating public policy meant to reach those most in need. And all around us, so many buildings we count among our collective riches, from cathedrals to the pyramids to the Great Wall, were built by great groups of anonymous people.
The letter, by the way, gets better: Clampitt stays at the Cloisters for a program of medieval music, sitting on a rock instead of a chair. As she listens and watches the sunlight come in a thirteenth-century window:
“The Kyrie, which of course is a cry for mercy, and the sun on the stone, a purely physical phenomenon, seemed while I listened to have some affinity, almost to be one and the same thing. After a while, when the music changed to something else, I was mildly aware that while this was going on I had — perhaps for no more than an instant, but there is no measuring this kind of experience — entirely forgotten my own existence. . . .Possibly this is what is supposed to take place at baptism — but if baptism it was, it wasn’t of water, but of light.”
This, too, I love. For a few years after I finished graduate school I practiced massage as a licensed therapist. As a therapist, I quickly learned that it was impossible to do good work if I were thinking about anything but the person on my table. During those years, I spent six-hour stretches in the quiet company of others, unable to worry, stew, or think about the past or future. And at the end of a day, even if my thumbs and forearms hurt, and I would have to plunge my arms in a bowl of ice when I got home, I was happy and at peace in ways I never have been before or since. It’s not a surprise, really: lots of cultures and religions teach that happiness comes from forgetting the self, and being completely available to others.
A month after Amy Clampitt writes this letter, she will have a dramatic spiritual awakening and join the Episcopal church. But I wonder whether it is really the afternoon she describes in this letter that becomes the seed of that awakening — if it really begins with an image of very old tapestries, and the threads that bind all of us together.