The book I’ve returned to most in this most cursed year of our Lord 2020, a year in which each day lurches uneasily into the next, is Susan Neville’s Iconography. That is to say, lately I’ve been obsessed with dailiness and ritual.
In her book, Neville embarks on a quest of sorts, or a vow—to write every day for forty days. She sets Iconography into motion when, somewhat by chance, she begins attending an icon painting class taught by an Orthodox nun. In the basement of the Joy of All Who Sorrow Church, students cook gesso on hot plates and mix egg wash for their boards, onto which they etch images of saints with razors. It is a slow and reverent process. Neville eventually stops showing up, feeling out of place as the lapsed Protestant amongst the supplicants and true believers. The next part of the book represents forty days of writing during the Lenten season. It's a search not for God but for a kind of ritual all the same.
“The image,” their teacher Mother Catherine says, “is always the reflection of the prototype. What is intelligible and touches the conscious mind is only the exterior surface of the icon. Its essence is to be a point of contact, a place where we meet with a presence, with mystery. The icon is a window into the invisible.”
The icon is a window into the invisible. I think of Neville’s project, her daily writing, as a set of forty windows. They’re quietly philosophical meditations grounded in the minutiae of her life as a professor at Butler University, as a writer and mother and wife and community member. The mundane observations on visits to the mall and hand-me-down furniture act as portals into the sublime.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why I’m so drawn to this book. I’m definitely a sucker for a Project. An endurance test, a challenge of my discipline and resolve. It stokes the part of me that finds pleasure in leaping over a hurdle I installed myself. Reading other people’s feats of endurance elicits a similar pleasure, mirror neurons flashing as I read about another writer writing while I sit on the couch, resolutely not writing.
But this book isn’t exactly that, either. Neville describes her daily meditations as more of a searching:
“Each day I go fishing in the water of this internal voice. This week the water’s still, this angled pen a blue sail; the hook is lazy in the estuary, the water the color of lapis. So what if I don’t catch a fish? I said that I would fish; that’s all I promised. I bait the hook with each day’s discipline. I have no guarantees that there is anything at all to catch in these particular waters, that something beneath the surface won’t grab my pen and pull me under.”
I suppose I am predisposed to this writing, having been raised in the christian church. A daily habit of prayer, the language of devotion, a ritual of ruminating on your problems (in prayer, on the page), of picking over the vagaries of a day, the internal voice, if you will, going fishing for...something. All feel intensely familiar to me.
Lately I’ve been treating Iconography as a portal of a different kind. As part of my writing practice I’ll sit down, read a page or two from the book, and then leap into my own work. I’m interested in subjectivity, too. What can be gleaned from the everyday, what glimpses into the invisible can be accessed when we turn away from an empirical, colonial mode of seeing the world?
As Kate Zambreno wrote in Drifts, I want to write increasingly small and minor texts. These days, writing means I sit in my backyard and watch the desert sun filter through the leaves of the eucalyptus tree, the erratic scatter of tiny lizards across the pale flagstones, the iridescent shimmer of a hummingbird flitting past my shoulder. These days, my ambition runs towards simply watching, fixing my gaze to what I can see is true. Neville’s book feels like a way into that attention.
But really I think I just like how it feels to read Iconography. When I pick it up I’m immersed in Neville’s capacious and roving mind. I gladly wander into the tractor beam of her attention and watch as in her hands, ordinary things turn incandescent. I know that I can’t see or notice or perceive everything but it’s okay because there’s always tomorrow. I turn the page.
Hea-Ream Lee’s work has appeared in Popula, Hobart, the Hairpin, and others. She has received a fellowship from Bread Loaf Environmental Writers' Conference and is working towards an MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. She is writing a book about seed banks and longing.