A Stillness that Moves
In the Rothko Chapel, I am a creature of habit. I started volunteering after my eighteenth birthday, more than two years after my mother died of a swift and furious stroke at an arts festival I did not attend. Blood interrupted. That's how she left me. Wednesdays, I help welcome people into the Chapel then stand in the shadows of towering canvases of dark purple and maroon, colors of ageless sorrow that vibrate like string. I volunteer because I want to see. Mother named me Mira. Seeing is my birthright. It's just no one's ever shown me how.
I volunteer once a week but I'm more or less the same. I greet people at the door then put my back against the stucco wall near the entrance. It's my job to maintain the silence. People come from all over to see something but they never tell you what. They sit on benches or meditation pillows. The octagonal space prickles with old prayer. The baffled skylight protects all from the Houston sun. Unseen clouds pass over the chapel like the shadows of sea tortoises. Some people demand a journey from the paintings. The comment book in the foyer is a palimpsest of a shared life.
Today we host a fieldtrip. The girls are fifth graders and their uniforms are the color of crushed blueberries. There are seven of them in a line. Felt schoolgirl hats nest at the back of their heads. With their teacher in front, they walk around the chapel's perimeter. They sit on the brick floor before the north triptych. Some bow their heads while others face the paintings. The girl seated in the middle trembles. Another girl's mind is a hive of wonder. She turns her body left and right to take in paintings that must leap out at her like an enchanted wood. She and I lock eyes and I smile with my finger to my lips.
The girl seated in the middle loses it. Her gasps punch holes into the air. The other girls whisper excitedly. When she screams, I leave the shadows. The teacher lifts the girl off the ground by her armpits and pleads with her. When I reach them the girl sobs into her teacher's dress and the teacher places her hand on top of the girl's hat as if to hold her in place.
I stand beneath the skylight and try to get their attention. My back is hunched and I fling my arms towards the entrance, saying nothing but hoping they'll leave. There're other visitors taking in the sacredness. I don't wish to deepen the scene and yet this is who I am during a crisis, a hulking mime. Henry, the better soul who works the front desk, rushes inside and takes the girl's hand in his. They exit. The teacher kneels before the sitting girls and tells them to hush. When it's quiet again, I straighten. Later, Henry will tell me I did the best I could.
Once, Betty, another volunteer, said I'm clever. It's because I paint oceans and sneak faces into the waves. I'm more than clever, but I'm afraid of letting people know. Six months after Mother died my stepdad, the performer, gutted our house with a fire. I escaped carrying two of Mother's glass cranes in the hem of my nightgown. They clanked like chimes above my bare knees. Their beaks overlapped in a blue, translucent X. I now live with my cousin Isabel and her boyfriend Dave. I care for their pittbuls, F.D.R and Tabitha. Sometimes clever is easier.
I go outside to get some air. Henry and the girl who lost it are sailing a paper boat at the reflection pool. I sit on the other side of the pool behind the Broken Obelisk. When I squint my eyes, the Broken Obelisk is my mother. Mother had kept a blue aerial hammock in her bedroom. During her warmups, she'd stretch her arms and legs against the fabric and transform into the rippling sail of a boat, an inverted pyramid.
I expect to find Mother in Rothko's paintings but I never do. Last time I really looked at them I saw Dave kissing me atop Isabel's bed and wiping my tears with rose petals. I hated this. I wanted to be good. I wasn't prepared for desire to careen from one vital organ to the next, popping them like carnival balloons so I may piece together their animal shapes as if I carried within me a deep zoo.
"In the Rothko Chapel, find a stillness that moves," we tell our visitors.
I find it in Henry and the girl. They smile and wave before going back inside. They saw me. I couldn't hide behind the Broken Obelisk. Wind spins the paper boat my way. Joy spreads through me.
Once, Mark Rothko told his students that his work carries some hope, a mere "10 percent to make the tragic concept more endurable." I see my reflection in the water. For a change of pace, I think about my ten percent.
In her activist days, Mother hosts gatherings at the Rothko Chapel. She cranks out a weekly newsletter and distributes it among universities. After a gathering, she holds me in her arms and says, "My Mira, so many live their lives in the place between doing and not doing. They lose so much that way. But you, love, are going to really do things."
There's a Tibetan bowl at her feet. She tells me to strike it, but I want her to play. She takes that stick with the funny name and strikes the rim of the bowl. "Best part is," she tells me, "I'm going to be around to see it."
Emily Collins is a writer in Portland, Maine. Her work has appeared in The Curator and The Westchester Review.