LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO A DUCK IN THE GARDEN OF NINFA
BY CHELSEA HODSON
The first and only time I saw you, it was because someone had called me over, saying, “Look at this duck.” I had been looking at the swan in the nearby pond, admiring its elegance and its mysterious side-eye glance. But I walked over to your pond, and, I have to admit, for a duck, you looked ordinary to me at first. You had an orange beak and some brown and white feathers. But what you were doing wasn’t ordinary: you were swimming up to a mirror and gazing at yourself, as if you’d locked eyes with something wonderful.
The mirror wasn’t big: about a foot tall and a few inches wide. It almost looked like a rearview mirror from a car, placed on its side on this little island in the middle of the pond where you seemed to live now—inside the Garden of Ninfa, a short drive from Rome. Our tour guide said, “The mirror is there so he doesn’t die of loneliness.” My group of students and I laughed—was this for real? The rumor was that you had forgotten to migrate with your flock. The tour guide explained that the mirror was enough now to keep you alive: whenever you became panicked and too stressed to eat, you could swim up to the mirror and see what you thought was a friend.
I don’t know how you could “forget” to migrate—all the wings of your loved ones rising up to the sky in unison. Did you forget to look?
A therapist once told me that when I felt depressed, I should go on a walk and look at the sky. Something about the fresh air and remembering how small I am was supposed to help me. I think it did, but it occurs to me now that this is the opposite of what you were doing. For you, looking in a mirror is the ultimate comfort: it focuses in, restricting your view to yourself, which you actually perceive as “other.” This must be where the comfort lies. I once used fabric to cover all the mirrors in my apartment as a kind of precaution: a way to keep me from myself. And isn’t that what I long for—a removal? A vacation as a removal from the home, sleep as a removal from consciousness, art-making as a removal from reality.
Writing essays does that for me—removes me from my life. The personal essay has been accused of narcissism, and maybe fairly so. I do write about myself. But something happens in the translation from my brain to my hand—I instinctually want to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, I possess neither the capability to remember my beginning nor the ability to foresee my ending. I’m all middle, and it’s all chaos, until I assign meaning to it, which is where the only hope for satisfaction lies. If I look in the mirror, I should see myself, as you do in Ninfa. If I write about myself, I should recognize my life. However, as soon as it’s written, my life goes elsewhere, it leaves me alone in the water. It looks for something better elsewhere, and I don’t blame it.
Being alone doesn’t bother me the way it seems to bother a lot of people. I have my best ideas when I’m alone, but I’ve also been alone for a long enough period of time to understand how delicate the line between sanity and insanity is. Or, how delicate my line is—I feel myself slip a bit. If I live long enough, I’ll see. Or, others will see, because I’ll just be in one long, continuous dream that makes sense only to me. When I saw my grandmother act that way—dreaming at the end of her life—I played along, because to hold a mirror up to her logic would be cruel.
In Bluets, Maggie Nelson wrote, “Loneliness is solitude with a problem.” By this definition, solitude is peace, and loneliness is peace with a kind of fear—the idea that something is missing. As an American, I find that this idea makes sense. In this country, “full” is interchangeable with “good.” A full day means you’re productive, a full life means you’re satisfied, and a full stomach means you ate enough. But what accounts for a difference in appetite for life? What if I am content being very alone and very still? What if I look in the mirror and see a different world than the one I live in?
James Richardson, from his book, Vectors: “The worst part of fear is not knowing what to do. And often you only have to ask 'What would I do if I were not afraid?' to know what to do, and do it, and not be afraid.” This is what I think about when I fear my own writing—what if I can’t make it perfect? Perfection may be a useless goal, but it’s the only thrill left. If I were unafraid, I would write more efficiently. If you were unafraid, you might understand that your reflection is a kind of love, because you perceive the illusion as a companion.
I believe in the possibility of love as salvation. I believe in the possibility that all animals are social and must physically see each other and interact in order to survive. I believe that I have failed myself again and again, but that I can still look in a mirror and not want to die. That’s what they call “a step in the right direction.” I believe in metaphors, that I am you and that you are me, and that we are swimming at the same speed in different pools. I believe it’s a lie that one species is better than another. Mine simply felt guilty for failing you, and so it attempted to help you. That’s how favors work.
I’ve never written directly to a bird before. But I see myself in you, which perhaps only speaks to the human condition, and nothing else. So why write a letter at all? Well, I think a letter can be a kind of hand, and a hand can be a kind of mirror. And so I hold myself up to you, I remember you in the rearview mirror, I see you lift your wings in flight, I hear your call, and then I listen for it again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chelsea Hodson is the author of the essay collection Tonight I'm Someone Else and the chapbook Pity the Animal. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Bennington College and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell Colony and PEN Center USA Emerging Voices. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Frieze Magazine, Black Warrior Review, The Lifted Brow, Fanzine, Hobart, and elsewhere. She teaches at Catapult in New York and at Mors Tua Vita Mea in Rome. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaHodson.
Author photo by Ryan Lowry.
Header photo by unknown.