October 28, 2020KR OnlineNonfiction

The Alhambra

“Loneliness is collective; it is a city.”
     —Olivia Laing

In the summer of 2004, when I was twenty-nine, I spent a week at the Alhambra Hotel near King’s Cross Station in London. It’s one of dozens of Alhambra hotels and hostelries around the world, all nodding to the original, an ornate pile of Moorish castle in Granada, Spain, built on Roman ruins and tucked inside a fortress. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella recaptured the castle and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Islamic caliphs who had ruled there for centuries. In 1828, the American writer Washington Irving took a gentleman’s camping trip inside the castle, which he lavishly recounted in Tales of the Alhambra. Irving was the kind of moron who could gaze over the baking Spanish countryside in the heat of noon and wonder why none of the local inhabitants were about. The Alhambra is now one of the most heavily trafficked tourist sites in the world, but two centuries ago, when Irving tiptoed through its moonlit courtyards, hoping to surprise the ghosts of Moorish princesses, he had the place to himself. Likewise, I found the Alhambra on Argyle Street a good place to hole up and be alone.

I chose it because it was cheap, a step above a youth hostel (for which I no longer qualified) but not a B&B offering fripperies like French-milled soap to remind me what I was spending on my impulsive vacation. It had been a bad year, and I wanted to get outside my life for a while, so I went to London in July when it was mobbed. If you want to escape everything and you can’t have a castle, you can surround yourself with so many other bodies and sight-seeing buses and tour groups that you are effectively invisible, which is what I did. I stayed alone at the Alhambra for five nights and, in the way that certain porous memories achieve a life of their own, I have been staying there, off and on, ever since.

I don’t remember much of the hotel except the room I stayed in. It was furnished in Danish-modern dormitory style with a double bed, a wardrobe, and a cheap, pressboard dresser with a television on top. At the end of the hall was a white-tiled communal toilet and shower. I have a vague memory of a reception desk and a basement dining room where I ate the requisite “English Breakfast” (offered in heavily Spanish-accented English) of toast, eggs, beans, and a choice of tea or weak coffee. The rest of the building is rubbed from memory, but the plain room where I went straight from Heathrow and locked the door and crawled into bed remains vivid. The room is open, as in an architect’s drawing, with the street-facing exterior wall cut away. It is lamp-lit and snug and since it can no longer be entered by any real door, it has a feeling of total, inviolate security.

 

No serious traveler would think that a six-hour flight from Boston straight into the central headquarters of my own language qualified as leaving home, but I was not an adventure seeker. All my life I have been melancholic, a condition so familiar I didn’t realize it might be specific to me until my midteens. But in 2004, under the pressures of a stressful job and a soured romance, my comfortable, everyday sadness turned darker. I was having dizzy spells on my morning subway ride to work and weeping daily. I’d forget to eat for most of a day, then sit down to a bowl of cereal and find that chewing was too much effort. Before this, sad was a stable element like a color or a smell, but this new sorrow was displacing, and the more room I gave it, the rougher and bigger it became.

I understood that what was happening might be serious—even dangerous—but not all of me had gone to pieces. Playing opposite this semihysterical subway fainter was a solid pragmatist with the instincts of a field medic, and she began to triage. I had a week off in between the bad job that I’d finally quit and the start of a new job, so I bought a plane ticket and a map of central London. Since I appeared to be headed somewhere (straight down) why not make an itinerary? The Alhambra would serve as a budget sanitarium where I could come and go as I chose, select my own therapies and, at the end of my stay, discharge myself into my own care.

If you had crossed my path that week, heading out the front door of the Alhambra, zipped in an olive-drab windbreaker and gripping my laminated map and copy of “Let’s Go! London,” you would not have thought: breakdown underway. I had the determined pace of someone who knew where she was headed (I did not) and how to get there (no clue). All I knew for certain was that I had to keep moving.

 

In his detailed study of depression, The Noonday Demon,[1] Andrew Solomon writes that “[t]here is no life that does not have the material for despair in it, but some people go too close to the edge and others manage to stay sometimes sad in a safe clearing far from the cliffs.”

You might say that I live in a clearing, with a very direct view of those cliffs. The clinical term for me is “dysthymia,” “depressed mood,” “moderate depression” or “anxiety,” depending on which part of my record you consult. Most therapists would group me with the “worried well,” meaning that I have recurring bouts of mild depression coupled with insurance. By my midtwenties I knew that sadness could pile on quickly if I let it and that I had to devote a certain amount of effort to scraping off the scaly accumulation. I did this mostly by walking long distances, alone. Travel and reading could help; also writing (sometimes) and the company of a few specific friends. If all else failed, there was alcohol.

By the time I went to London, I was practiced at the routine cleanings and maintenance that kept me well enough, but I was more deeply fractured this time and I knew it. There was relief and even a bit of excitement at the prospect of coming fully unhinged. After a lifetime of caution, sadness and I were finally going to have it out. I had found my extreme sport. Misery would be my adventure travel.

 

My London plan was simple: I walked. I walked from Kings Cross to St. Paul’s Cathedral, a distance of two and a half miles, and from there to Blackfriars Bridge and over the Thames to the Tate Museum and the Globe Theater, where I bought a discount ticket to “Measure for Measure.” I might have purchased an even cheaper ticket in the open-air “groundling” section, or splashed-out for a plush seat complete with pretheater dinner, but in the end I was happy with a bench and a rented seat cushion, under the Globe’s faithfully re-created thatch roof. London in July can be freezing. A trembling curtain of rain fell between the actors (Isabella, defending her purity and Angelo trying to bully her out of it) and sometimes the wind swept the rain back into our rented-cushion section. When I left, I was cold, and damp to the skin.

The next day I hiked to Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields where I had tea and a scone in the crypt-turned-café and then attended a concert, shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists in windbreakers. A small string ensemble played Pachelbel’s Canon in D. The feeling in the chapel was of quiet, guilty pleasure. Everyone knows that Canon in D is a special kind of torture to freelance musicians and that no one is supposed to relax to classical music, but there we were in our windbreakers, finding it kind of beautiful, and warm and dry.

Everywhere, I was hemmed by strangers. Friends at home had insisted I visit the wine bar where they got engaged, so, dutifully, I found it, requested a table for one and ordered a depressing slice of quiche Lorraine and a glass of Syrah. I walked around the buildings of Parliament and took a respectful look up at the clock tower. I plodded through Westminster Abbey, stepping on famous dead people and across St. James Park, stepping around picnickers and ducks. A crowd milled in front of Buckingham Palace, not looking at anything, so I stood with them awhile and then headed back toward my cupboard of privacy at the Alhambra.

In the evening rush around Piccadilly Circus, I pushed through streams of people. Those heading home from work moved in straight lines, while other tourists on the lookout for food or ticket kiosks moved in eddies, bumping and jostling like inflatable boats. I floated alone in the here/not here of one person in an inundated city. I got lost, spoke to no one, figured out where I was, kept moving.

Back at my room I found a television program called “The Tallest People in Britain.” It matched my mood so completely that I was transfixed: all these lonely, articulate, exceptionally tall British people describing their childhoods and careers and hopes. One very tall man had fallen in love with an equally tall woman, and they were planning to marry, but then she died. After she was gone, he walked alone on mountain paths and around lakes where they’d walked together. The camera followed him down the trail as he kept on, absent the one person who’d truly understood him.

In my raw state this man seemed very brave, his height and his sorrow achingly poignant. Like him, I was alone, and expected to stay that way. My most recent relationship had come apart despite—or perhaps because of—my efforts to hold on to it, and I saw my future as one of total aloneness. A bleak thought, made worse by the embarrassment of wanting companionship instead of delighting in untethered freedom. But here my inner field-medic interjected: if my idea of freedom was simply toggling between torpor and fretfulness, then I was doing it wrong.

 

We lose so much. Most of our lives is over in a flash, never recalled again, but sometimes, for its own reasons, the mind constructs a space that holds and protects, never blocking the outside but mediating it like the walls of a cell. For example: I am a tiny child, and an adult insists that I put on a green wool sweater that has reindeer on it and is terrifyingly itchy. Or: I am watching snow fall from the night sky and have the bewildering sensation that the snow is still and I am rising.

Most of my memories have the flatness of paper but some, like the sweater, the snow, and my room at the Alhambra, are self-contained worlds, formed in the past yet permeable to the present. How do they attain that roundedness, becoming a receptacle where time is, and is not, fixed? The clearest depiction I’ve read of this phenomenon is from Virginia Woolf’s memoir, Moments of Being,[2] in which she writes of lying in bed in the nursery of her family’s home at St. Ives, half-awake and blissfully comfortable. She writes that it was like “lying in a grape,” which is an appealingly odd way to explain how the sensory inputs the of the moment—the rush and hiss of waves outside the window, the pale yellow, silver, and green colors of the nursery, and her own ecstasy—seem to congeal into a thick, translucent fluid. In that amniotic orb, Woolf’s earlier self is not only remembered but continues to live. The notion that certain memories have an encapsulating quality, where storage and intense distillation are possible, was an idea I recognized, though I had never surfaced it on my own.

Emily Fox Gordon points to something similar in her essay “Kafka and Me,”[3] though hers is not a memory but an image—she calls it a “modest vision”—that came to her while she pushed through the final minutes of childbirth. Like Woolf’s nursery, Gordon’s vision is suffused with light: “[W]hat I saw was a grouping of tables, protected from the sun by fringed umbrellas. This was an outdoor café of some kind, an elevated flagstone patio in a public place like a zoo or a park. Nobody was in sight, but it was apparent that a group of people had just now gotten up and left.” This patio scene, empty of people but pulsing with human presence, stays with her for years. “I think of it as something akin to a yolk sac,” she writes. “[A] private supply of highly concentrated psychic nourishment.”

My room at the Alhambra is plainer than Woolf’s nursery and dimmer than Gordon’s patio, but like those places it is a stabilizing capsule. In that room of memory, I am suspended in a breathable, light-filtering liquid, neither awake nor asleep. Perfectly content.

 

It would hurt the feelings of an art historian to see how indifferently I marched through London’s museums, giving each item the care of a piece of produce: fine, uplifting, fine, confusing, fine, sensual, ugly, fine.

At the Tate I stared into Mark Rothko’s fuzzy rectangles of color until the bars began to twitch and pulsate. I stormed the National Gallery, searching for interest in the Bruges painters, the Impressionists, the fourteenth-century Italians, but it wasn’t until I got to the National Portrait Gallery that my pace slowed, and I began to feel awake in a different way. Here was an entire museum of faces, many as odd-looking as my tall friends from the television and every one of them silent.

As I’ve already admitted, I don’t know anything about art, but portraiture seems, on the surface at least, like the kind of art I might hope to understand. It’s just people, asserting (or bearing the artist’s assertion) that they are subjects worthy of contemplating. By extension maybe we, the museum-goers, can learn something about self-worth by studying these faces. Or not. I don’t know. All I know is that I was content in the NPG. It was peopled space, though these were not my people exactly. They were all British, for one thing, and many of them wildly distant from me in class, time, and worldview. Still, I felt like the survivor of a shipwreck who has stumbled into a human settlement. An astronaut who finds a teapot on the moon. I’m not so alone, I thought. (I realize I’m making a lot of a museum visit, but that’s the irony of loneliness. In addition to making you unattractive to romantic partners, it causes hypersensitivity to human contact.)

Out of habit, I went through the NPG oldest-to-newest upper floors first where they keep the stiff-collared royals in their itchy tights, on down to contemporary and then very-most-contemporary, which was an exhibit of portraits by young, British artists: self-portraits, portraits of kids, mothers, friends, strangers, grandparents. I was immediately drawn to one untitled self-portrait by an artist named Georgia Cox. The portrait shows a plain-looking person, mid-twenties, with shortish brown hair, glasses, and a down-turned mouth bordered by faint lines. A high, pale forehead and just the faintest shadow of a mustache. She’s wearing a black blouse with a Japanese-style floral print. The shelves behind her are crammed with potted plants, cans of brushes, mugs of pens and pencils, ceramic jars, stuffed bears, a peacock feather, bells on a string, Russian nesting dolls, and several photographs of people. Her right arm—presumably the one in which she holds a brush—extends beyond the canvas; we see it only to the wrist. There is something subtly wrong with the shape and proportion of this arm. The painting slips a little. Cox doesn’t quite get the natural bend of flesh and bone at the elbow, and for some reason I love this more than anything else about the painting. It is on its way to being the work of a completely grown artist, but the difficulty is there, too, an element of the painting. More than the perfectly rendered objects in the background, like that peacock feather, the not-quite-right arm reveals just how hard it was to get it right, and how vital.

The wall of objects behind her seems to contain all the materials Cox will need to assemble herself and the work ahead of her—a rich loam from which she will pull more paintings, more life. I have always preferred spare spaces and neat rooms, but I found myself envious. I wanted that profusion, but it belonged to someone else. I had to make my own.

 

I went to London to get away from sadness, but I discovered that it goes where I go, and this turns out to be one of the more useful facts I know about myself. What I began to see during that week was that sadness, while often a sign of trouble, is also a means of navigation. At times, I know of no other way forward.

In her book The Lonely City,[4] the British author Olivia Laing writes of discovering, in a dark time of her own, that loneliness may seem like a sign of failure, but it is actually an impulse toward life, and art is a potent conductor of that life-force:

[T]he way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or falling in love but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.

My trip might have looked like little more than a sifting of broken pieces—I was sad when I arrived and sad when I boarded my return flight—but when I got home, some of those pieces were very subtly reconfigured. In my backpack I carried a print I’d bought of Cox’s portrait in the NPG gift shop, rolled in a cardboard tube. It stayed in the tube for more than a decade. Then, about a year ago, I took it out and taped it to the wall beside my computer. The print didn’t include the artist’s name, a date, or any other information, so I took what I thought was a gamble and posted a photo of it on Facebook to see if anyone could help me track down the artist. In less time than it took to type that sentence, a friend searched the image and found an online catalog of the exhibit, complete with Cox’s painting and her name. She lives in Bath. Her recent works are intricate paintings of birds and flowers, worked in oil and gold leaf. “I tend not to work to plan,”[5] she says of her artistic process, “instead, I enjoy the serendipity of working from the middle outwards.”

I’m sure she never planned to be taped next to a computer in a house outside of Boston, but I like to think she would find a serendipitous pleasure in being there, so far outwards from where she started. When I look up from the screen and to my left, her studied gaze catches mine, and I can feel the effort of muscles in my own eyes to focus and concentrate the light. It’s that teapot-on-the-moon feeling again. I’m less alone. Laing is correct, I think, that this is art’s most stunning effect: an object made by a stranger can be worlds away and, at the same time, almost unbearably personal.

For a while, after I put up the Cox print, I busied myself with the project of retracing my steps in London using Google Street View, half expecting that I’d spot myself passing in or out of the frame, identifiable by my windbreaker and faintly irritated look. But zooming around virtual maps like a drone pilot induced more nausea than nostalgia. It was too fast and too accurate. I didn’t want to look at Argyle Street as seen from a passing car or a passing satellite; I wanted the feeling of shoe on pavement, and there’s no map for that. Even if I’d crossed my own path through some overlaid map of time, I doubt I’d be much use to my younger self. The fact is, I need her there, as she is, in order to be here, now. I’ll take my remembered room at the Alhambra, which itself remembers an old castle that is built around ruins, resting on ruins even older than that, each Alhambra nested safely inside the others.

The physical world I inhabit now is full to overflowing. Sadness is here but cared for more sporadically these days, like a root-bound house plant. I have become a collection point of objects: photos, jackets, children’s drawings, checks, a reminder from my husband to call the pharmacy, coffee cups, notebooks, and more litter, more pictures, more words and precious items and useless junk than I can possibly track. The loam of a life that has silted up around me since London. Georgia looks on from the wall, same as ever, just a little yellowed at the edges. A long time ago, I took a vacation because I thought I was irreparably broken, when, in fact, I was simply normal. Lonely, and waiting for the future. In other words, alive.

 

Notes
[1] Solomon, Andrew. 2001. The Noonday Demon.
[2] Woolf, Virginia, and Jeanne Schulkind. 1985. Moments of Being.
[3] Gordon, Emily Fox. 2010. Book of Days: Personal Essays.
[4] Laing, Olivia. 2016. The Lonely City.
[5] https://www.georgiacox.com/about