People told me motherhood would feel like deprivation—losing time, losing sleep, losing freedom—but in the beginning it felt more like sudden and exhausting plenitude. Turns out there were more hours in the day if you never slept. My baby opened a seam in the night and pulled me into the strange dark world beyond, those silent hours between 2 and 5, when she slept on my chest as I watched terrible reality television about aspiring Australian models, or paced the living room looking across the street at the single lit window on our block, wondering, Who? and Why? On our walks, during our endless days, I started noticing things I’d never noticed before: the fountain hidden in the courtyard of a brick apartment building, the purple-lit windows that suggested something hydroponic growing inside, the photographs of shoplifters posted indignantly at the entrance to the gentlest twee toy shop in our neighborhood (stolen toys made of wood!). I learned the names of trees I’d been walking past for years: London planetree, silver maple, Siberian elm. As the branches beyond the nursery window turned from bare to bud to bloom, I remembered my first sponsor in twelve-step recovery saying her Higher Power was just the sheer fact that trees could grow from seeds—that this transformation was simultaneously radical and commonplace, happening in plain sight.
Being with my baby every hour of every day demanded close attention, not just to her—whether her fluttering eyelids meant she was waking up or just dreaming, how close she’d rolled to the edge of our bed—but also to everything else, because the alternative to paying attention was growing bored out of my mind. My hunger for stimulation meant my gaze was sensitized, the way your eyes can see more after you’ve spent a few minutes in the dark.
It’s often easiest to ignore what’s right in front of us. As the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot wrote:
The everyday has this essential trait: it allows no hold…. It is the unperceived, first in the sense that one has always looked past it. [It is] what we never see for a first time, but only see again.*
Those newborn months made the everyday visible again. It was all suddenly there, the humdrum moments stretched like a holy skin across our days: my daughter’s giggling as she nursed, milk dribbling from her mouth; or the pin-prick drizzle against our skin on rainy afternoons, when I’d walk for miles with her sleeping against my chest. The warm breeze of her breath swelled against my ribs. Her hands in their fleece-lined mittens startled like birds when she woke.
At a busy press preview at the Museum of Modern Art, set to reopen after a four-month renovation, I find myself alone in a basement gallery, several floors beneath its reshuffled masterpieces (Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory). The rest of the press is upstairs, but I’ve taken the escalators down to an eerie, emotive underworld where memory is persisting in a different way. An exhibition called “Private Lives Public Spaces” comprises a collection of home movies showing everyday scenes: one child pushes another in a sled as the day darkens around them. Lace curtains billow in a breeze. A woman mock-proposes to another woman at a lawn party, kneeling on the grass and laughing. A middle-aged man in a suit and tie rides piggyback on the shoulders of another middle-aged man in a suit and tie. Boys take furtive sips of Manischewitz at someone’s bar mitzvah, their glasses glinting in the ballroom light.
The exhibit spans two floors, and while the upper level contains work by professional artists working with 8 mm film—Andy Warhol, Peggy Ahwesh, Cindy Sherman—the lower floor has a stronger gravitational pull, bringing me back to the home movies. Placards that usually bear the names of famous artists display suburban-sounding surnames instead: Levitt family. Thompson family. Hubley family. Descending to this level feels like dropping into the subconscious—a place not of art, exactly, but the deep place art comes from. Each film channels the gaze of an amateur—which is to say, a gaze tuned like a radio channel to the affective nuances of daily living: amusement, awkwardness, delight, and the extravagant devotion of love. Love gets accused of blinding us, or dulling our gaze, but it can summon our vision most urgently.
Standing in this basement feels like letting a stranger—or a hundred of them—whisper secrets in your ear. It’s almost like the first time I got drunk, when I was eleven, and booze suddenly revealed itself as a miracle the world had been keeping hidden in plain sight. Except here it’s more like the secret of the everyday, what Blanchot said we are always looking past. “The everyday is platitude (what lags and falls back, the residual life with which our trash cans and cemeteries are filled: scrap and refuse),” he wrote, “but this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived.”
An anonymous movie called My Dream Trip consists primarily of vacation footage shot on a train—the café car and narrow aisles, a pale water tower visible through a rain-streaked window—with voiceover from a man whose voice sounds like Kermit the Frog after twenty years of pack-a-day smoking. Smoker Kermit is thrilled by everything he sees. “So beautiful,” he keeps saying at the sight of the St. Louis Arch, “so gorgeous.” His gaze is humid with enthusiasm. And when he sees the automated gate at the entrance to an underground parking garage, he says, “Hello hello HELLO,” as if greeting a long-lost friend. Tenderness saturates the footage of his wife wearing her white camisole in their sleeping cabin, or eating potato chips and drinking beer out of a plastic cup in the dining car; his nighttime footage of the red-light district in New Orleans feels like a feral fever-dream, blurred by unspoken desire.
The curatorial introduction to “Private Lives Public Spaces” frames the exhibition as a “democratic, personal, and unregulated” archive:
Since small-gauge, portable cameras were introduced in the 1920s, many thousands of reels of home movies have been shot around the world, forming the largest body of unseen and underappreciated moving-image work on film.
In this description, I can hear the shaky undertones of a justification that anticipates the skeptical visitor wondering, Did I really need to come to the basement of MoMA to see a middle-aged man gesticulating in a self-important way at a cocktail party? But the idea of a vast unregulated archive fascinates me. A great river has been running beneath our feet for more than a century; now it’s suddenly flooding this basement, carrying the scrap and refuse of residual life.
My own cell phone feeds it, this river—all the videos I’ve taken of my daughter during the first two years of her life, all the unrelenting and repetitive rhythms that feel necessary to capture because I know they’ll eventually be nothing but memories: the nights she slept in her bassinet (which disappeared so fast! after taking so long to arrive!) and the days she crawled toward her beloved Mortimer Moose. The urge to record or transcribe something testifies to awe—Elaine Scarry writes that beauty “seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication”—but also to preemptive grief. Part of the poignancy of these movies in the MoMA basement is knowing how much of their life is gone, or changed past recognition. The babies on these screens are elderly now, or dead.
The tradition of found photography has its own lineage—the Met staged a major exhibition of “vernacular photography” in 2000, and the National Gallery put on “Art of the American Snapshot” in 2007—that has tried to illuminate the particular “two-way traffic” of this democratic medium. As the art critic Michael Kimmelman put it, writing about the exhibition at the Met for The New York Times, amateurs absorb the styles of professionals, while professional photographers (like Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand) try to “emulate the amateur’s blithe innocence.” But while there’s a veneer of innocence to these home movies—an air of the idiot savant’s capacity to unwittingly capture a glimpse of profundity—their most powerful valence is not one of innocence but of self-effacing knowledge. Watching one while I see twenty others in my peripheral vision summons Auden’s lines on Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.
On one screen, someone gazes at the camera with a broken heart; on the screen beside her, a couple gets married. It’s overwhelming—a hundred screens playing all these different lives side by side.
This sense of sublime excess is some version of what I felt in those early days with my newborn daughter: it was all too much, but when I tried to find language for it, it felt like nothing at all—milk and diapers, milk and diapers, milk and diapers—grains of sand running between my fingers. The astonishing revelation of caring for a baby felt shameful to claim: wasn’t it utterly pedestrian, deeply banal, soggy with sentiment? Doesn’t attachment bathe every common thing in the glow of false remarkability? I felt the creeping accusation that my maternal love-drunk gaze had essentially made it impossible for me to see anything. The fearful grad student who still lived inside me was nervous that she could not possibly justify her exaltation—that it wasn’t worth speaking. When I wrote down details in the One Line a Day book that my childhood best friend had given me, I felt my inner critic and mother arguing. The critic wanted to choose some detail from the day that seemed lyrical or at least mildly narrative—my daughter feeding Mortimer Moose a bite of banana, or getting her little hands covered with wet cherry blossoms—while the mother in me wanted to choose…everything.
When I describe those days with my daughter as unbearably beautiful, as I often do, part of me cringes at the adverb itself. Unbearably often reads as a throwaway intensifier. But when I speak about the quality of my attention as a parent, or about the ferocious human chaos of that basement gallery, I mean unbearably more specifically—to describe an apprehension of beauty that feels almost like looking at the sun. It’s as if these movies throb so palpably with the richness and urgency of what it means to be alive that you can’t quite face them directly. It’s as if you’ve been gazing furtively at someone you love in secret, and she suddenly turns to meet your stare.
By showing amateur home movies in one of the most famous museums in the world, “Private Lives Public Spaces” asks us to see not just the aesthetic richness of daily life, but also to see it as a parade of minor performances: vacation as a performance of leisure, a garden party as a performance of sociability, parenting as a performance of love. Is there anyone who doesn’t sometimes imagine an audience for even the most unremarkable moments of her life?
The Levitt family’s 1963 home movie Newburgh Visit and Monster El Inferno brings together two kinds of everyday performance: adults host a dinner party, mugging for the camera with liquor bottles and meatloaf, while their children play elaborate games of make-believe at their feet, lining up TV dinner trays to create a tunnel through which they can crawl like army grunts or deep-cave spelunkers. Then the kids take control of the camera: a title card that says MONSTER EL INFERNO is followed by shots of a plastic brown dinosaur toppling a ship and finally a miniature city. An urgent handwritten question flashes on the screen, badly cropped: Anything Stop Him?? Then the camera shows two boys sprawled on their backs on the carpet, fake blood on their faces, pretending to be dead. One boy can’t help giggling, and it’s this glitch—this disruption, this fissure—that makes the whole scene vibrate.
These are the moments that affect me most in these movies, these flashes of secret interior life suddenly surfacing: a boy’s hopeless giggling; a woman’s undisguised pleasure at her bag of potato chips on the train; the awkward silence of a boy at the end of the bar mitzvah banquet table, his forced smile; a woman doing a stately waltz, in a baroque ballroom, turning suddenly to flash a sly, flirtatious look at the camera. This secret life dwells in each of us, mysterious, wild, intimate, and these moments of rupture expose what so much art is chasing after: glimpses of the subterranean desires and pleasures and sorrows that are constantly lurking behind our composed surfaces, veiled by the costumes of our facial expressions and our social media accounts, our etiquette and our armor. The crippling fear of exposure lives uneasily alongside its opposite—a primal longing to be seen.
Again and again, I find myself returning to the Jarret family home movies: 175 minutes of footage taken by an African-American family in Pittsburgh between 1958 and 1967. Perhaps it has something to do with the couch opposite the screen—I’ve crouched before a tiny plastic dinosaur for too long—but it also has to do with the joy, community, and intimacy rising from its scenes. And with the quiet flashes of interior life breaking into view: one woman’s hand resting on another woman’s arm, full of tender concern; a little boy cracking up when his mother doesn’t get the dance steps quite right; a mother with bright red lips holding a swaddled baby, glancing quickly at a plane passing through the sky overhead—and what does her gaze hold? A longing to be on that plane? A hunger for distance from her child, or a fear of that distance—knowing that some version of it will come to pass someday?
Watching the Jarret family movies, I am captivated by the sharp, eerie lacework of the places where the film itself has eroded. It looks like a blue algae creeping jerkily across the screen, warping and distorting the scene, as if this living room we are watching is already haunted by the specter of its dissolution.
The first time I visit “Private Lives Public Spaces,” I am in the midst of teaching a graduate seminar focused on archives. And what is an archive, if not a private life displaced to a public space? In class, we talk so much about the illicit thrill of perusing secret materials—old letters or diaries—and the flip side of that thrill: the shame of seeing what was never meant for our eyes. We talk about how an archive asks you to sift through tedious materials for hours, the banality of what fills trash cans and cemeteries, until you’re bored out of your mind, and then suddenly gifts you with some searing flash of humanity: that handwritten note at the end of a typewritten letter, suggesting an illicit love; or that cigarette-burned, drunk-scrawled diary entry. French historian Arlette Farge calls it the “archival breeze,” this sudden gust of life amid the pile of mundane materials.
One sequence in the Jarret family movies shows a small group of people dancing in a living room. It looks less like an organized party than a spontaneous eruption of festivity on a regular weeknight: three women doing the twist between the coffee table and the couch, one in linen slacks with a cigarette between her lips; folks with furrowed brows playing cards at a table behind them; a baby in a lace dress propped against a corner couch cushion; a boy in a red bathrobe and one in black suspenders, both clasping their hands together and swimming downward like fish, checking their feet occasionally, not sure if they are doing the steps right. It’s an ordinary evening brimming with the extraordinary condition of being alive, and watching gives me a sense of vertigo, as if I’m falling through cracks in the surface of experience—witnessing the secret of what it feels like to be this person, in this moment. Something rises inside me, as if it could touch these strangers just beneath their skin. Something in me wants to.
It would be a lie to say that I was blindsided by the beauty of the ordinary at MoMA; more truthful to say I’d gone looking for it. By the time I stood in front of those home movies, I was nearly a decade into an ongoing fascination with the grace of ordinariness: an increasingly insistent belief in unextraordinary lives as sites of meaning. For me it began in twelve-step meetings, listening to the voices of strangers in other basements, in distant cities—riveted by stories or clichés that my literary training had taught me to understand as banal. Recovery was teaching me that every life held profundity. Banality was just a call to look harder. And while I was starting to attend these meetings, I was also reading and ranking applications for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—expected to decide whose stories were better than others. This produced a certain tension: Why were stories valuable for their exceptionality in one sphere, and for their interchangeability in another?
Ever since those days, I’ve been mustering all my literary credentials to muscle every ordinary story across the threshold of what we call beautiful. I spent years convincing my editor that my book about addiction needed to include the stories of “un-famous” alcoholics alongside famous drunk writers; I wrote an essay about a museum full of household objects donated by people who had gone through unremarkable breakups; I wrote a passionate homage to a photographer who spent thirty years photographing the same rural Mexican family. At the MoMA press preview, I felt proud to stand in the basement with these personal artifacts of human experience while other critics gazed at the masterpieces upstairs. But this pride was hounded by a nagging sense of shame—the abiding embarrassment at finding too many things wondrous: a leaf, a bug, a stranger’s face, an ASPCA mobile bus full of homeless kittens.
The Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti spent an entire decade of his life making his sculptures smaller and smaller until they were just tiny clay stick figures that crumbled in his hands, and sometimes it feels like I’m doing some version of that by pursuing this stubborn love affair with the unremarkable—approaching an untenable asymptote by trying to find beauty in every single moment of every single life. If this toddler playing in the snow is beautiful, and this awkward boy sipping his sweet wine, and this stay-at-home mom looking bored, and this halved pineapple full of fruit salad, and etc. etc. etc., then how do we ever turn away? There is no end to this version of profundity. There are no edges.
It summons Borges’s parable of a map that shows every aspect of the world; a map that must become—of course, impossibly—as large as the world itself. The Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön tells the story of a lady desperate to attain enlightenment, who is instructed to seek an old woman living in a cave on top of a mountain. When the old woman asks this lady if she is sure she wants enlightenment, and the lady insists she does, then the
smiling old woman turned into a demon, stood up brandishing a great big stick, and started chasing her, saying, “Now! Now! Now!” For the rest of her life, that lady could never get away from the demon who was always saying, “Now!”
This merciless, unrelenting enlightenment is one way to describe the infinitude of these hundred screens—displaying so much humanity, and also suggesting all the humanity beyond their edges. Meaning is happening Now! Now! Now!
During the first year of my daughter’s life, I spent more time at museums than I ever had before. They weren’t sites of edification so much as places to pass the hours. During the bitter winter months, they were places to pass the hours indoors.
For much of my adult life, I’d thought of time as a resource that could be converted into various completed tasks—bakery shifts finished, deadlines met, groceries bought, doctoral dissertation submitted—but with my baby, time suddenly became something else. It was an element to be swum through like water, rather than a currency to be traded for the talisman of some accomplishment. The point wasn’t to get anything done; it was simply to move through the hours. Just to say: We made it through the day! This was our only job. It was liberating. I’d put my baby in her puffy white snowsuit and carry her through humid greenhouses at the botanic gardens, past towering primeval ferns and rubber trees and dangling purple sweetsop like blackberries meant for a giant. It was like we were walking through the history of time itself. The smell of her shit would be sudden and intimate. I couldn’t get enough of it. In a way I hadn’t realized, recovery had been training me for parenthood—patiently teaching me that an experience can be utterly common and still absolutely profound.
At the Brooklyn Museum, a mile from our apartment, we spent hours—honestly, cumulatively, hours—in front of Albert Bierstadt’s enormous nineteenth-century oil landscape A Storm in the Mountains, Mt. Rosalie. It showed a big sky full of dark clouds swollen over rugged mountains, with piercing shafts of sunlight breaking through the storm to illuminate the texture of craggy rocks and spindly pines. To me, the painting understood the ways a moment could feel both ruthless and consoling. It told me weather systems weren’t always sequential. Sometimes you were in the storm and the sunlight at once. It was also hung in front of a bench, which made it convenient for nursing. My baby took what she needed from my body while I took what I needed from the canvas, which wasn’t just pleasure at its virtuosic craft, or an appreciation for its composition, but something more primal—a kind of relief at the aperture of this vast landscape opening onto the milky claustrophobia of our days. It offered an outside. It made me feel small, in a good way—in the sense of facing something sublime; a violent sense of abundance. My relationship to beauty felt less like aesthetic appreciation and more like thirst. I wanted it like water.
I’d often measured beauty in terms of resonance—the way a literary text could crystallize some recognizable aspect of consciousness, for example—but this beauty was not about recognition. This was the beauty of an alternative, of contrast. My own life was diapers, nursing, naptime, nursing, endless water glasses, nursing, hiss of steam heaters, nursing. This was big skies and big weather, little figures and their little dramas humbled by the shadowy peaks. And yet, even as this painting offered an outside to my life, I could feel how the rhythms of my life had trained and enabled me to see it. Nursing kept me facing its landscape for long stretches of time, and my sensitized gaze was noticing all its particular details—horses with wind-blown manes and the grain of tiny thistles, the splintering of uprooted trees—in the same way I’d noticed the hidden fountain in the garden, the purple windows, the Siberian elms.
In the painting, snow-capped Mt. Rosalie looms behind everything else, a mountain named for the painter’s mistress, wife of his friend and fellow explorer—the woman who would eventually become his wife. He mapped his love onto a mountain before he could possess his beloved fully. I knew it was a species of delusion to think anyone could ever be possessed, no matter how much you loved them, but when I held my baby in front of that painting—latched on, resting in the crook of my arm—it was as if she were a part of me again. And when I lost myself in that landscape, it was both of us I was losing, both of us together—our bodies connected by that continuous stream of milk. From before she was born, I’d wanted to give my daughter a sense of the world as infinite—difficult, perhaps, and painful, but never closed, never static, always more of it, always another swath of sky behind the clouds, a sudden vista from the trail, the possibility of a love you couldn’t see coming until it arrived.
It was only after several months of taking my baby to the museum that I noticed a cluster of photographs on the fourth floor that seemed to show a woman taking her baby to a museum. They were artifacts documenting the artist Lea Lublin’s 1968 Mon Fils (My Son), in which she cared for her seven-month-old son, Nicholas, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, installing a crib in one of the galleries. She had cared for her son in a museum and it counted as art. I was caring for my daughter in a museum and it…didn’t. Or did it? What made one labor, and the other art? Describing her installation in an interview, Lublin said, “The previous year, my great joy had been the birth of my son and I said to myself: the best thing for me to do is displace a moment of my everyday life to an artistic space, the Museum.” The critic in me felt the crucial word here was displace, that it was this sense of displacement that made her childcare art—the jarring notion that it didn’t belong. It was only by harnessing, exploiting, and illuminating this whiff of not belonging in the museum that her performance of motherhood made itself artistic enough to belong there.
What belongs in a museum, anyway? An epic landscape painting, sure. A crib? A baby? A photograph of a crib and a baby? Though we often understand art as representation, it actually operates through exclusion and distortion. Art changes the world—distills it, transforms it, and rejects it—in order to focus and electrify our attention. Beauty rises from what feels recognizable and faraway at once: the craggy mountain glowing with human love; the crib in its white-walled gallery. My great joy had been the birth of my son. Art doesn’t just replicate our lives, its force lives in its acts of framing and reimagining, its juxtapositions, and—as Lublin put it—its displacements.
So yes, the critic in me felt the crucial word was displace.
The mother in me felt the crucial word was joy.
At the core of creative practice, there’s a tension between will and contingency: the artist simultaneously crafts her vision and surrenders to its thrall, controlling the work while seeking something beyond her control, reaching for the larger mystery of what she can’t predict or even fully understand. The amateur gaze embodies this surrender; these home movies at MoMA have already placed themselves at the mercy of whatever happens.
Now that my daughter is a toddler, it is not so easy to sit peacefully in front of landscape paintings as she nurses, not so easy to ruminate quietly on the relationship between domesticity and the sublime. Toddlers are nothing if not tiny midwives of disruption. Now my daughter wants to climb. She wants to inspect the museum’s benches and ramps and automatic doors. She wants to injure herself in daring and inventive ways I can never imagine before they unfold. She wants to run madcap back and forth along the heating vents stretching the length of the lobby, abandoning herself to the pleasure of its clanging bars under her tiny feet. Her joy is my teacher, too—its suddenness, its grace. In the museum, she wants to do all the things I watch other children do in those home movies in the MoMA basement. I don’t bring her to watch these home movies, though they are full of her kin and kind: babies and toddlers strutting around in their diapers, picking up empty milk-boxes, flying through the air on the sweet curve of their bellies. As I watch them, I am usually paying someone to watch her. My cell phone buzzes with incoming videos of all the daring and aching-with-her-own-particular-humanity things she is doing at any given moment.
Leaving my toddler at home so I can watch home videos of other toddlers is one iteration of the essential estrangement of art—the departure and return it invites. Art asks us to briefly abandon our lives in order to come back with a changed gaze. It’s the daydream and the homecoming. The point is the residue; the fact that we have not left untouched. When I leave my toddler in order to watch videos of other toddlers, it’s like seeing my own life through the wrong end of a telescope. Or maybe it’s like seeing earth from space, how you can see the whole of it at once. It’s another version of leaving the beauty of a museum for the beauty of the world past its exit, full of Siberian elms and mysterious purple windows. We come alive to it by leaving it. Beneath the citizen-self who wakes each day to make oatmeal for the child, who scrubs the toilet bowl clean and finds fossilized spaghetti behind the radiator, there is another self—howling with ache and desire, thirsty for the sublime registers. Every once in a while, it flashes into sight through a rift in the skin, to announce, here I am.