by Mary Anne Trause
In December 2019, I saw the online image of a young girl posted by the Greg Kucera Gallery, which I had visited in Seattle often before moving to San Diego. The image captured me. I had to see it in person. I actually took an overnight trip to stand before her. Addie Mae Collins from Forever: Four Little Girls. One of the four Sunday school girls slain in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. Captured eternally in a Forever stamp replica by Paul Rucker.
Addie Mae’s radiant brown face, seemingly younger than her fourteen years, half-smiled at me with crinkled eyes. Her gaze stared straight into mine. Her lavender shirt was soft, as if I could reach out and touch it. I returned home and wrote about her. It was the first time I had done anything like that. Although my husband and I had collected art for years and enjoyed following our favorite artists and their work, I’d never been drawn to a photographic image in that way. I’d never written about a piece of art. I loved doing it. It felt bold to follow my desire to see the piece in real life. Powerful.
But I didn’t understand my reaction to Addie Mae until the next year when I read a lyric essay by Chelsey Clammer called “Diving In.” I usually skim the surface when I read, even though I love to read out loud. To hear the rhythm of the words, the phrases, the sentences. I can sense when words are right. Absorb them in my body. The template set down by my mother’s voice when I was still within her. But feeling that cadence is as deep as I typically go.
The meaning below the words’ sounds and surface rarely touches my body.
Reading “Diving In,” I listen intently, lean forward as Clammer tells me about “un-cozying” her body from her warm apartment and “into the 25-degree Chicago air. 4 am. Grasping a mug of coffee. Smoking a cigarette.” I am intrigued. What is this person doing? Clammer says she’s imitating a narrator in a different essay who did this. Why? She explains: “I got the idea from those words. I wanted to act out the narrator’s actions. She made the image of an early morning outside cigarette in the cold sound soothing. I want to know that type of soothe, that type of serenity, and so I follow suit.”
I chew on my left middle finger as I contemplate this. The physical act engages my body and helps me concentrate. Chewing away, I am listening with my body so my brain can see this new horizon. It’s like encountering a foreign country.
Repeatedly in her essay, Clammer challenges me to go below the surface when I read. To embody the words. “Words . . . won’t stay still. They travel to me, through me, greet me under my skin. This is a body full of sensation, soaking in the sound of beauty vocalized.”
I look up from her words. Trying to grasp this notion of words resonating in our bodies. Of replicating written experiences in real life so we can feel the meaning of the written words in our bodies.
I think of Addie Mae. It’s the artist’s vision, not words, that connects to my body. After reading Clammer, I open myself to the image and let myself plunge in. Addie Mae’s high forehead and round cheeks, like the proportions of a baby’s face, draw me, as a mother, near. Her eye-to-eye contact elicits warmth in my chest like the warmth of flowing milk. She pulls me to her. My body wants to hold and protect her.
My skin tingles. I feel warm. She speaks to my soul. The nonverbal part of my brain intuits her needs without her telling me. The part that just knows without rules front and center. When meeting this child, mine is “a body that wants to be part of the story.” I am vulnerable. I care about her. I do not just see Addie Mae. She is part of me.
But what about my body? Have I not dived in before because my monkey brain is always chattering? Maybe it’s too scary, Clammer suggests, to let a story or work of art inside. Maybe it makes me too vulnerable. That’s possible. I was raised the first-born daughter of two very loving but young parents. They were 20 and 22. My dad had just returned from World War II. I grew up with lots of rules. I learned to make hospital corners on beds. Have perfect table manners. Not speak unless spoken to. Never interrupt an adult. Even in an emergency. My young brain molded itself to these prescriptions. Dive into anything without the rules being front and center? Never. Too dangerous. Keeping a little distance is safer for me.
I want to escape into that new land with no passport in hand. No guide book, no dictionary, no rules of the road. I want to be bold. Kayak in Iceland. Sip a martini in Manhattan. Fall in love with a stranger. Catch the Orient Express. I will notice my skin’s goosebumps. Feel shoulders contract with the pull. Taste gin slither down my throat, tickle my brain. Feel my heart stop as my lover approaches. Feel it race as I run for the train.
Yet there is more. Considering art, I know Addie Mae in not only my body, but also my mind. I know her story as an innocent young black girl killed by men who hated her for the color of her skin. Her death was three years before I heard Martin Luther King speak in Raleigh, N.C. The coliseum was filled with little girls and boys dressed in their Sunday best. We listened together to Rev. Dr. King’s rising voice as he thundered, “You do not have to love me, but you cannot lynch me.” He shared his dream that when these children grew up, the world would be a better place. My heart raced, sharing the excitement of every person present.
Paul Rucker’s Forever image embodies the beauty of this dream. Coaxed by Clammer, every part of me re-experiences the possibilities each time I look at this image. Which I get to do many times a day as I recently bought one of the original 18 prints and brought Addie Mae Collins home. It’s especially meaningful to me now as I, with our country, revisit racism and its ongoing violence and inequities.
I live the paradox of wanting to protect this child, who can no longer be protected. But with Rucker’s vision, I can protect her memory.
Maybe the diving in isn’t just my doing. Maybe certain pieces – literary or visual – pull me in. Invite me to dive. Somehow seduce my skimming brain to take the plunge. Maybe it’s when those pieces speak to my body, too, as Clammer suggests. That happens with Addie Mae. The face of this young girl speaks to my body the way words speak to Clammer, who says, “I sink my body into the memory of words, those elements of this world that keep me cozy, keep me breathing. Alive.”
What an amazing synergy. Every so often a piece of written or visual art invites the plunge and the reader or viewer is bold enough to accept. A vibrant relationship is born.
I am alive as I delight in my body’s dive into art, into words.
Mary Anne Trause is a retired psychologist living in Encinitas, CA. She has co-authored two books on parenting, Commonsense Breastfeeding and The Father Book, and has several poems published in Summation and one in the San Diego Poetry Annual. She is quite interested in poetry, Northwest art, and multigenerational living.