The muse must have been looking over my shoulder yesterday because, unexpectedly, I stumbled upon a case of life imitating art. Or was art imitating life?
I’d spent most of the day walking my dog, talking with friends online, and reading Anna Quindlen’s novel, “Still Life with Breadcrumbs,” the story of a photographer whose career is in decline.
In late afternoon, I decided to take my car out for a spin, since the last time I’d started it up, it had been sluggish. I feared the battery was about to reach its moment of planned obsolescence. (That would be about par for 2020.) But I hoped that if I drove around for an hour or so, maybe I could revive it.
On a whim, I grabbed my camera before heading out (something I haven’t done in a while, since it’s been too hot during the day for photography). “You never know,” I thought, imagining for just a second a chance encounter with a dust devil, or maybe a space alien. The car sputtered to a reluctant start. Before it could die on me, I put it in gear and headed north.
My destination was Oracle, about half an hour up the road – an unincorporated town whose most famous resident to date has been Buffalo Bill Cody. En route, it occurred to me to plug in an audiobook that was in my phone.
Unfortunately, I’m not too good with modern audio systems in cars (or in phones, for that matter). In fact, I was surprised I’d managed to get the book copied into my phone at all. So as not to cause an accident, I turned off the main highway, Oracle Road, and onto Biosphere Road (which, inconsequentially, leads to Biosphere 2) in order to park, thumb through my owner’s manual, and figure out how to tell my car to read a book to me.
After a few hundred feet, I came to a turnaround. It looked like an ideal place for rattlesnakes and tarantulas to hang out, but I wasn’t planning to get out of the car and join their party, even if they were wearing masks. Heavy, dark storm clouds were gathering in the distance, and a few were above my head. I was anxious to queue up my book and get back on the road.
The clouds had other ideas. They suddenly moved out of the sun’s way, and a shaft of light landed on something smooth, tall, and bright along the trail: a scarred and dusty shrine in the middle of the desert.
It seemed to be a case of life imitating art. You see (spoiler alert), on page 37 in Still Life With Breadcrumbs, that book I’d been reading earlier that day, the protagonist goes for a hike in the woods and comes upon a shrine – a white wooden cross with a glittering child’s volleyball trophy lying on the ground next to it. She takes some photos.
I felt like life was trying to tell me something, so I shut off the engine, grabbed my camera, and got out of the car. Scoping out the ground for snakes or spiders, I cautiously approached the little memorial and took a few photos. As soon as I’d finished and gotten back in my car, I realized I might have made a mistake.
It was 107 degrees out, and there I was in the middle of the Arizona desert with a car whose battery was on its last legs. I wondered how long it would be before AAA could find me. I turned the key in the ignition. The engine choked for a few seconds, and then, reluctantly, it caught.
I sighed, turned the car around, and glanced back at the shrine, but by then the sun had ducked behind the clouds again; the scene was now in shadow. I’d gotten there just at the right moment.
All I could think of on the drive home was the phrase, “life imitates art.” So today I looked that up and learned a thing or two. The idea has been around since at least the time of Plato, who believed art was a poor imitation of life, and for that reason could be dangerous. Aristotle, on the other hand, welcomed art’s imitation of life. And Oscar Wilde’s take was that life imitates art more often than art imitates life. Even Dostoevsky got into the debate, describing it as more of a codependent relationship, where art imitates life, which then imitates art, causing life to owe its very existence to art.
As for me, I was totally flabbergasted by the way my life (finding the shrine) seemed to be imitating art (the book I’m reading). Or maybe art (the book) was imitating life (its pathos) which in turn was imitating art (the shrine). It’s something I thought was worth pondering, especially when I realized one more thread:
In “Still Life With Breadcrumbs,” the protagonist doesn’t notice a certain, possibly significant, detail on the cross until she gets home and enlarges the photo. That same thing happened to me – I didn’t notice the coins at the base of the statue until I got home. Can you spot them?
I’ve searched online for other photos of this shrine but couldn’t find any, so I don’t know who it’s for. I wish I did. In any case, I think I’ll return soon and add some coins to their collection.