Photograph by Holly Allen

When Holly Allen showed me her photograph of a jumbo ladder pitched in the graveyard where she often walks her dog, I imagined some dearly departed acting on second thoughts, and asked to include the image in this particular journal issue, about getting things wrong. Holly said yes, paused, then related that as a child she’d felt wronged and badly fated by her unusual name. “Holly” marked her as different and difficult, evoking a sharp and prickly tree, the kind no one wanted to touch. Her sense of being a cootie kid—inexplicably unliked, always at odds, her own inimical mother’s bête noire—was all tied up for her with the name. She decided to right this wrong by adopting a new name: “Chris.”

This childhood dilemma—Who am I really?—calls to mind the French writer Francis Ponge‘s wry observation on the nature of trees: No freedom whatever in leafing…. Of course he was speaking not just of trees, but of the constitutional particularity of all things—mollusks, bars of soap, little girls; all metaphorically elastic but ultimately inescapable as fingerprints. The beauty and paradoxical freedom of this enthralled him.

Always the same leaf, always the same way of unfolding, the same limits; leaves always symmetrical to each other, symmetrically hung! Try another leaf. —The same! Once more. —Still the same! In short, nothing can put an end to it, except this sudden realization: ‘There is no way out of trees by means of trees.’ 

As it happened, everyone went along with Holly’s name change—everyone but her mother. Holly persisted, though, and one day her mother looked straight at her and said it: “Chris.” At once, Holly said, she was “flooded by panic, as though my mother had reached inside, unzipped me in my most vulnerable place, and all my secret feelings fell out where she could get her hands on them.” That wouldn’t do, so right there she told her mother she’d changed her mind, and went back to being Holly, armed once more in her bright barbed leaves.

Field Notes

“One of Picasso’s favorite assignments for a young artist was to have him or her try to draw perfect circle. It can’t be done; everyone draws a circle with some particular distortion, and that distorted circle is your circle, an insight into your style. ‘Try to make the circle as best you can. And since nobody before you has made a perfect circle, you can be sure that your circle will be completely your own. Only then will you have a chance to be original.’ The deviations from the ideal give an insight into the style, and thus, Picasso says, ‘from errors one gets to know the personality.’”

– From Lewis Hyde’s “Trickster Makes This World