From the Mixed Up Files of Me

Two weeks ago, I skipped town to go to the Met Museum in New York City.1 Depending on your route and the traffic and the movements of the spheres, it’s about 3-4 hours from here. It’s just far enough away that you can do the up-and-back in a day if you need to but can also justify an overnight if you choose to.

The reason for my trip was this: I celebrated my second Covid birthday at the beginning of April. Turning 50 means that you have a much better idea what you want from a birthday and all I wanted was to visit the Met and sit with the Temple of Dendur, which is a place that calls to my soul.2

I went solo, which was also a gift, given how much time I’ve spent with my husband, the kids, and the animals during the last 14 months. I had two work-adjacent meetings while I was in the big city3 but then had the rest of the time to fart around without considering anyone else’s wants, wishes, or complaints. Add that to two nights in a hotel room — one where I didn’t have to listen to anything but my own thoughts — and it was absolute bliss.4

But my innate need to be alone most of the time is not what this is about. This is about the Met.

I had plenty of space in which to commune with this bust of Mary Shelley. Her expression is divine, mind, but look at the folds of her clothes. How do you do that with rock?

After so many years of visiting the museum — my oldest and I go at least once each year to see the annual fashion exhibit — I finally figured out why it is such an important place for me. When I was a kid, I read E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler about a million times.

If you haven’t read it, the plot is this: twelve-year old Claudia runs away from her Connecticut home.5 She decides that the Metropolitan Museum is the perfect place to hide. Claudia and her brother Jaime sleep in one of the historic beds. They bathe in the restaurant fountain. And they explore the city as they try to solve a fairly low-key mystery. Eventually, they wind up at Mrs Frankweiler’s,6 the machinations for which I won’t spoil just in case.

It’s a book about figuring out what your strengths are and daring to go big.7 It’s also a love letter to the museum8 — and one that my kid brain imprinted on. I re-read it when I got home last week, which is a choice that is always fraught. So many of the books I loved as a kid really didn’t hold up 40 years later for a variety of reasons.9

There are moments that adult-me keyed into that kid-me would have totally missed, like how Claudia and James grow as a team and how Konigsburg develops both kids through their adventure. To say nothing of the wisdom bombs that Mrs. F lays down, like this one after Claudia asserts that everyone should learn something new everyday:

“I don’t agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take the time to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”

Right? So good.

In addition to this being the visit when I realized how the seeds of my love for the Met were planted, it was also the visit where I learned that one of my favorite podcasts did a collaboration with the curators a few years ago. Nate DiMeo produced nine episodes of his always thought-provoking The Memory Palace about specific items on display. Informative plaques at each of these nine items tell you the episode title. I’m certain said plaques have been there for years — but because I didn’t have my children with me and the place was relatively empty, I finally noticed them. Right now, I’m saving eight of ‘em10 for those moments when I need a museum fix.

And speaking of museums and magic: Netflix’s This Is a Robbery is an interesting enough documentary series about the 1990 theft of several masterpieces from a gallery in Boston. The story of the investigation was okay, I guess, and took some unexpected turns. But what will stick with me is a new obsession with visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum my own self. Gardner was a lady after my own heart, museum-wise, and may have had a touch of the Mrs Frankenweiler herself.

Which books that you loved as a kid have you re-read as an adult? And did they still resonate? Tell me in the comments.

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Hey! Did you know I also write books? There are three you can buy right now.

1

It was two weeks past my second Moderna vax and it was time to venture slowly out (masked and with distance, natch) into the world.

2

(Even though I detest the phrase “calls to my soul.”)

3

Nothing at all big but good to see people in person.

4

New York City isn’t “back to normal,” by the way. Many things are still closed and many won’t open ever again. That part is a little sad (and I recommend not walking through Broadway because ooof). But what is amazing is how the city feels like it’s on the verge of pulling a Madonna and reinventing itself again. Cities that have been around for any length of time change, just like people do.

5

she brings one of her younger brothers with her because he has spending money

6

As a kid, I wanted to be Claudia. As a middle-aged woman, my new goal is to be Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler.

7

It’s also a story where parents have to try very, very hard to not freak out about how they’d feel if two of their under-12s ran away. I mean.

8

The Met of 1968 is a much different place than it is now, both figuratively and literally. But it remains the same place Konigsburg describes in spirit, no matter how much it has changed.

9

One that remains a delight is The Westing Game. Love that book.

10

I listened to the first one on the train to Albany.