6 min read

The Blessed Unrest of Women Talking

A very dramatic sunset over a river covered in lily pads and framed in long grasses and leaves from surrounding trees.

On April 12, while scrolling the wilderness of Twitter, I saw Ellen Kushner post an excerpt from Agnes de Mille's 1991 biography of Martha Graham (Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham). It thrilled me; I shared it, and kept it tucked into the back pocket of my mind for months. A couple of weeks ago I saw it circulating on Instagram, and was thrilled by it again; a few days later I shared it with my students. I keep returning to it, making a kind of pilgrimage to this small passage that feels as familiar and remote as a sunset.

Did you ever, as a child, watch a sunset and feel an ache in your heart that you couldn't name? I remember feeling that way – I remember specific sunsets from my childhood and where I was when I watched them. (One of them's in This Is How You Lose the Time War: "Have you ever watched this kind of sunset? The colours don't blend: the redder the sky the bluer the water, as we tilt away from the sun.") I remember, even more, the passion with which I encountered descriptions in literature of how I felt about sunsets. That this evanescent longing, this running of the heart into watercolours, this hollow beautiful strangeness that seemed made specifically for my whole emerging self to echo into – that this should be a known thing, a recognized phenomenon, was a revelation; to know that people in books understood it was to see the world a little more enchanted and a little more true. To see it in Emily of New Moon, with her "flash"; to see it in The Hobbit, whenever Bilbo felt "queer" in the presence of Elvish or Dwarven music; to see it in Lud-in-the-Mist, with Nathaniel Chanticleer's terrifying, seductive "Note," sounding at once "plangent, blood-freezing and alluring"; to find it curled in corners of narratives I can't remember now, but to recall it always described the same way: as an ache, as a pang. I think it was my first understanding that something could be beautiful and painful at the same time – that not every beautiful thing would make me feel uncomplicatedly good, and not every painful thing would be something I would want to avoid.

It's been a long time since a sunset made me feel this way. But Agnes de Mille's description of her conversation with Martha Graham – "in a Schrafft's restaurant over a soda" – does.

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

(Emphases mine.)

How to speak to this and how it affects me? It's more than the advice, which is excellent; more than the taut precision giving way to wild, passionate fervour. It's that I didn't know who Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham were before encountering this; that this friendship with art at its heart was not a foundational part of my life. I've since learned that they were both dancers and choreographers: Graham developed and codified the techniques that define American modern dance; de Mille is especially acclaimed for having choreographed the first Broadway production of Oklahoma! (1943), which ran for 2212 performances. This conversation took place after its premiere. They were giants in their field, lived long lives, died two years apart.

And they were friends, and they spoke to each other about their work.

It's hard not to feel sometimes like my life is a strange lacework of missing women. I've written about reading Naomi Mitchison for the first time; I've written and spoken before of how important it is to me to see women talking to each other in stories. I've quoted Emily Yoshida observing "the terrifying magic of two women in a room, talking". Meanwhile my education is full of men working together – pairs of men flowering friendships in their youth, loving each other, spurring each other on to make better art, break with the past, embody the spirit of the age. Coleridge and Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, Eliot and Pound. In fiction, too, it's easy to think of men's artistic friendships – as Ken Liu observes in his annotations of The Grace of Kings:

A particular type of story that has always fascinated me: two companions become the best of friends as they suffer and struggle and build, enduring trials and tribulations, striving toward a shared dream; but, just as they begin to achieve success, divisions and jealousies and differences, both grand and petty, sunder their bond, plunging them into bitter recrimination and strife. We see this all the time in life: startup founders who sic lawyers on each other days after the IPO; struggling band members who turn against one another once they finally get the recognition they crave; revolutionaries who launch purges and counter purges as soon as the ancien régime has been overthrown. People who can endure adversity together cannot always enjoy fame and happiness together.

It's harder to think of women. Not impossible – certainly more and more possible once one becomes aware of the lack, the disparity, and begins to search in earnest for the women who lived together, who were inseparable, who lifted each other up. The relationships that one knows must have existed because they currently exist, because none of us invented friendship in our early twenties, no matter how much it may have felt that way at the time.

This, I think, is the thrill I keep returning to in the passage, the pain and the grace mingling and indissociable from each other: it was 1943, and two women spoke to each other as artists and friends, as I speak to my friends who are women and artists. It was 1943, and two women shared their frustrations and joys, supported and urged each other on as my friends and I do. It was 1943, and horrors were shattering the world, and two women talked to each other about their work in the arts, their work in organizing bodies on a stage, their work in teaching bodies to contract themselves and release.

I have not yet read the biography. I continue to know very nearly nothing about these women and their lives. I am extrapolating a great deal from this single passage. But passage means more than one thing. It means excerpt, yes, a small piece of a bigger thing – but it also means a doorway, a hallway, implies connection between two things and movement through them, implies a voyage at sea. A channel, you might say, to keep open. And isn't a sunset, too, a kind of passage – of light into dark, of colour into absence, of heat into cold, of pain and glory holding hands like two women in a restaurant talking about art?

I think that sunset-stirred pang is the feeling that we are overlapping with something vaster than us, something that preceded us and will succeed us, but that we are bound to in memory and lineage even when we can't see it or know it or feel it – can't know every person who felt the strings of themselves resonate in sympathy with those colours, can't reach out to or touch them. Except, sometimes, when we open books, and find our hearts beating inside them, naked and vulnerable, singing of aches, of blessed unrest, of queer divine dissatisfaction. We open books and find that people loved as we love; women spoke as we speak. The sun sank every night and dissolved into rivers and oceans and the eyes of dreaming children, and it rose again as it rises again, missing no part of itself.