Because my husband Bill is a good sport and a willing participant in my madness, we drove to Washington, DC, last weekend just because I wanted to see an exhibit about Sylvia Plath. I’ve been talking about seeing this exhibit ever since I found out about it last fall. So we drive all the way to DC, check into our hotel, get up on Saturday, and head over to the absolutely massive National Portrait Gallery. I mean, this thing takes up an entire city block. We orient ourselves with the museum map and locate the Sylvia exhibit, entitled “One Life.” Only the website didn’t say that it was also one room. We walked around a bit and I could see Bill eyeing the edges of the room. I thought he was looking for an escape route. Then he came over to me and said, “This is it?” Oh, man. We drove for more than five hours in bad traffic, stopping once so I could stare at the side of the road for ten minutes because I thought I was going to hurl (I am such fun to travel with), for what we both thought would be a huge exhibit, but here we were in a building the size of the town I grew up in and poor Sylvia is in a room the size of my childhood bedroom.
For me, though, it was an amazing room. A room in which the space between genius and mental illness clearly shows itself as literary brilliance. I read every plaque, studied every letter under glass, took photos of every piece of Sylvia that was displayed. I loved every bit of it, absorbed her words like a thirsty towel and stared with awe at on old typewriter on which she had written. I loved seeing the words written in her own hand, as if she were reaching into the future for my hand, saying, “You are a writer, too. You can do this. Look at all of my cross-outs, false starts, and rejections. I went through it, too. You are not alone.” Oh, was I in my element. As I walked out of the “One Life” equals one room exhibit, I spotted Bill down the hall, resting on a circular couch, looking perfectly content to wait until Sylvia had fully entered my soul.
I’ve been fascinated with Sylvia Plath since I researched her for a paper in college. We were both born of at least one German immigrant (in her case, her father Otto). We were both creative souls who realized this fact at a young age. She committed suicide by gassing herself five days before I was born, and I have always felt that when she died part of her passed into me. Worry not: I am not now, nor have I ever been, suicidal. But I know the difficulties of being a restless, creative soul despite reflection after rejection. I understand her struggles to discover her true self. Most of all, though, she inspires me.
Fifty-five years after her death, seeing her hand-written poems with crossed-out passages as well as multiple corrections and additions that look very much like my own writing, I realize that all writers begin at the beginning of a thought and use write. The editing comes later. And seeing that gently prods me forward to write again. And again. And so I am thrilled that a museum exhibit, even if it was only one room, exists to pay homage to her life.
We checked out the rest of the museum before heading over to the National Mall, dragging ourselves through the DC streets in 90 degree heat with humidity almost to match. Then we ate at a restaurant that serves Italian food family style and ate so much—because it was so good—that we had to roll ourselves out of there when we were finished. It was totally not Weight Watchers-friendly and totally worth it.
To put a giant, annoying exclamation point at the end of our weekend, it took us ten hours to get home because of the traffic. What a mess. But I got to see the Sylvia exhibit and Bill got some un-asked for literary flavor. Did I also mention that Bill just finished reading The Great Gatsby? Check out these facts: he’s driving hours and hours to see one room of Sylvia’s stuff, he’s walking around melting before my eyes in the DC heat, and he’s reading the great American novel. What on earth have I done to this man? Don’t feel too bad for him: there were two stops at Bob Evans restaurants on our 48-hour trip, which made my Biscuit Boy husband exceedingly happy. All is well when there are biscuits and poems.