Category Archives: On the Sublime and Beautiful

Dr. Johnson’s Ghost


I could swear I spotted Samuel Johnson the other day, while still in Colorado. He was a large man, so large in fact, that he couldn’t help but appear to be bumbling about. I don’t mean that he was a man simply beset with a paunch after too many midnight sausage and beer forays with the other literary giants; what I mean is that everything about the man was large, including his lips, his nose, his head, his neck, his thick fingers, and the clothes that ill-fitted his big-boned frame.

For a moment—and only a moment—I envisioned the man in buckled shoes, short pants, a jacket buttoned tightly over the shirt that rose up to his chin with a tie at the collar, as if he were attempting to contain with one knot the thick neck beneath. I almost watched the filthy wig slip to the side as the man bent his head and hid his face behind a newspaper. However, the image slipped instead of the wig. The ghost of Samuel Johnson disappeared, leaving a man in jeans and a striped button-down shirt who didn’t really appreciate me staring at him.

I’m beginning to think that the ghost of Samuel Johnson haunts me, and I wonder what the Doc means to tell me. It seems I can’t go anywhere without his name, his visage, his words rearing up before me. Perhaps, I’ve simply created a world in which the great doctor can exist. After all, it makes sense I would encounter him in the introduction to The Female Quixote. As might be expected, Samuel Johnson gave patronage to Charlotte Lennox. According to Sir John Hawkins, Johnson had the audacity to throw her an all-night party at a tavern*:

“Johnson had directed that a magnificent hot apple-pye should make a part of it, and this he would have stuck with bay-leaves, because, forsooth, Mrs. Lenox was an authoress, and had written verses; and further, he had prepared for her a crown of laurel. . .”

On several occasions, I’ve had conversations with the grey-bearded man who makes the coffee at the local Anglican Church, in which Johnson plays a starring role. For certain definitions of religious and political words, he searches through the enormous volumes—the tomes as large as the doctor, himself—of Johnson’s dictionary. Sometimes, I admit, I linger in the kitchen area of the church just in case I might hear the name Samuel Johnson dropped in the midst of fruit washing and cheese slicing.

It was during my first writer’s getaway weekend that, after writing all day, drinking plenty of wine, and soaking in the mineral springs, I discovered the pocket volume of Samuel Johnson’s Insults. Now I carry it around with me, just in case. Is it any coincidence, really, that Johnson invaded my writing weekend?

My list of running against Johnson’s stout form doesn’t end there, but this passage of writing is growing, so I must stop and beg the muse to explain his presence to me—not the muse’s presence, of course. And I would also like to request that Dr. Johnson throw me an all-night party, in which he doesn’t crown me with a laurel, but in which he passes his greatness to me—in which he, in fact, says something to the nature of, “Well, I know you don’t live in London, but neither do I any longer. So, my friend, until we meet in heaven, you must carry on the tradition by writing a dictionary, or at least some decent poetry.”

*Sir John Hawkins quote taken from Margaret Anne Doody’s intro to the Oxford edition of The Female Quixote

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Oh, Sublime! Oh, Gothic! Oh, New Mexico!

Sometimes, I find that my life is a little too cozy. Yesterday afternoon, I walked into my bedroom and was struck by the scene I witnessed there: brand new, gorgeous red and blue bedspread, gray tabby cat curled at the end of it, piles of clean, folded laundry, my net-book, and several books splayed out (in a manner that bothers my husband due to the damage it does to the spines) in a variety ranging from vile chick lit to 18th C Gothic.

Later, I complained to my husband about my unadventurous life. In characteristic fashion, he thought of the ideal solution. I could start a club on Facebook for those people who like to go out of their way to create their own adventures. For example, one member might create a situation in which she has to be rescued by a tall, dark, and handsome man. Oh, that would be easy, I thought. My husband is tall by local standards, plus he’s dark and handsome. I rose from where I’d been reclining, and I attempted a fake swoon so that my husband would have to rise from his chair to catch me. Instead, I literally tripped over my own feet, fell over, and whacked him on the cheek.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Why’d you just hit me?”

“I was hoping you would rescue me,” I meekly said.

“Oh, I see. So in the world of fiction, your adventurers’ club is not a drama, but a comedy. Perfect.” And he laughed.

Could it get any worse? Not only was my life cozy, but it was a cozy comedy. Obviously, I’d spent too much time reading this sort of literature, such that my life had begun to reflect it. Distraught, I drained a glass of wine and stumbled toward the door. I had to take a walk, yes—descend into town.

With the sun setting behind me, I was startled to realize that the view from the foothills made a perfect picturesque. In the distance was an image of a winding river, the mesas rising up behind them in the background, an ancient, crumbling adobe edifice set upon a hill in the middle ground, and a smudge of a red roof in the foreground.

Darkness descended as I zigzagged downward on the dirt road. In the darkness, the scenery both thrilled and frightened me. Shadows flitted before me, and the rising moon cast a strange light over the skeletal limbs of cacti, over the graveyard of cactus bones. The wind whipped something—a grocery bag caught on the cholla spines. It whipped with a ghostly noise.

Then, a very strange event occurred, in which I was transported back several years, and I found myself walking closer and closer to the river, and closer, indeed, to the old adobe house where I used to live. Above me, the sky clouded over; lightning cracked and thunder rolled. The ancient mission bells rang out the hour. From the mist that rose from the winding river, I suddenly spied a figure in a long gown gliding over the sand. She was wailing—it was La Llorona!

Quickly, I turned into the creaking gate of my house and swept under the boughs of the walnut tree. I desperately fiddled with the key in the old lock, as it stuck, and then finally, finally unlocked the door. Thrills of cold and terror filled my body from the dankness that crept up from the porch boards. It was nearly black around me, despite a few city lights and the faraway light of the half moon.

My front door creaked open; my shoes creaked over the floor boards, and then I saw it. A dark shadow sat on the couch in the darkness, and it seemed to be making a growling noise. My gaze darted desperately to the telephone on my desk, where the answering machine blinked madly! With a pounding heart, I leaped for the light switch, only to have the figure on the couch leap back at me with a jolt.

It was my husband, who had happily been snoring until I had woken him. He groaned. I walked over to the answering machine and pressed play: a gravely, thin female voice gasped, “Go not to San Miguel!”

“Why not?” I asked no one in particular. “The festival’s tonight.”

As though it would help me understand, I pushed the play button again. “Go no to San Miguel. . .” At the end, I caught a word I hadn’t heard the first time, a blurred word that sounded like “lest”. Lest I meet my doom?

My husband shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know. Jannie called earlier and said something about her ex-boyfriend playing in the band.”

Jannie was my best friend, and her recent break-up with the alternate trombone player for Mariachi Malaise was legendary. “Oh, well, I’ll get on with dinner, then, since you clearly haven’t made it.”

“That would be nice. Thanks.”

In the kitchen, I began to peel the potatoes and boil water for coffee. Twenty minutes later, the windows were fogged, and the tea kettle was whistling merrily on the stove; the table was laid with a checked cloth and my cream-colored china. I sighed wistfully, my heart, my mind still energized from the sublimity of the journey that had taken me to this alternate reality—which just so happened to be as cozy as the one I had left behind. My tabby rubbed her head on my pants, and I comforted myself with the knowledge that, at least, La Llorona still roamed the river and through the streets, crying out for her lost children and snatching any others that remained outside after dark.

Wait a minute! Where were my children, and why wasn’t their dad watching them now that it was dark? Probably, they were still playing outside in the side yard . . .! Oh, terror gripped my soul!

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