I first met her in 2007, when I was crashing in one of those New York City apartments where you can wash your face while sitting on the toilet.
I’d just graduated college and was lost in my own skin, in love with a guy who’d written me into a play in which my character left his to die alone of a brain tumor. I was barely eating, but I bought a croissant on the walk to the Met and let it melt on my tongue in thin, dizzying strips.
Mäda Primavesi lives in Gallery 829. Gustav Klimt painted the 9-year-old in 1912. The canvas spent some time with the Nazis during the war, where I can imagine she gave them hell. I was unprepared. I rounded a corner and there she was against a riotous outbreak of flowers, all youthful challenge, arched brow, one fist clenched behind her hip. It’s a beautiful painting, yes, but more than that: It made me livid and terrified, how she owned her one life.
Since then, I’ve adopted the habit of one-stop museum tours. We think of these places as a thing to be done, a page in a guidebook. They’re daunting and overwhelming and honestly a little boring, and so we shuffle through like a chore, cameras against our faces.
I get it though, I do. I get the same feeling in museums as I do in libraries or bookstores, a kind of prickling in my gut. There’s something intimidating about the massing of knowledge, I think, how everything you need to understand the world and your place in it is so tantalizingly close. So we get tired, or disengage, or turn back to our phones, or just head to the gift shop. I read somewhere that the human brain can only focus on one thing for eight seconds before it splinters off again. It’s impossible to process all that awe at once.
But if you can get away from that, that very human compulsion to put another check mark on the list of “Important Things I Have Seen,” one-stop museum tours can be a meditation, an exercise in singular focus, a reprieve. The closeness of the recycled air, the precision of the light, the hum and jostle, the steady thrum of conversation. In a quiet room of sculpture in the basement of D.C.’s National Gallery (free!), I’d visit with the soft, Miracle-Whip flesh of Rodin’s “The Sphinx,” learning over and over how the body tries to make peace with itself.
And when I moved to New York, five years after that first meeting, I bought a membership to the Met. I’d scatter through for 20 minutes, less, the museum now a lunch break, a time-killer, a commute. And I’d visit Mäda. Every time that same ice water to the face, every time that reminder: “You must change your life.”
Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.