Summer Writing Resident Jessica Rapisarda: Solving for Chaos
Jessica Rapisarda is the fourth writer of the Summer 2021 cohort to spend her week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.
Read on for a peek into Jessica's experience below. You can also read more about Jessica and her fellow residents (past and current) here.
Before arriving at Woodlawn, I wanted to write about nature’s ability to comfort us. For many, the pandemic was spent in cramped rooms lit with the blue haze of a computer monitor. While in the midst of a forced social hibernation, just to be on the grass, among trees, to tend a garden can feel like surfacing from a great depth, like lungsful of air.
Then I actually arrived at Woodlawn. I wandered the grounds, haunted the rooms of the estate, and, a week later, I found myself asking, “Who is this ‘us’ being comforted?” When I said, “for many,” who did I mean?
Nature nurtures, yes, but history puts us to work. History hands us information, often inert as bricks, and requires that we understand every angle before we can build something sound.
Truth be told, I’ve never been a great builder. I’ve left it up to others to tell me where to lay the foundation and how to measure the rooms.
At Northern Virginia Community College, where I teach composition, a student from El Salvador marveled at all the historical monuments in the United States, remarking, “We don’t preserve old buildings like that. Something falls down, a new thing gets built. You know your history.”
“You” I took to mean not me, specifically, but Americans in general.
History, though, is a lot like science. It’s not a single unshakable truth, but a search for truths. Moreover, history, like science, also seeks to connect those truths, to build a network of insight.
I spend a lot of time thinking about numbers and patterns for an English professor with a math learning disability. For a few years, I worked as an editor for the National Academy of Sciences. It was there that I was introduced to Benoit Mandelbrot and fractal geometry. Can I calculate the area of a square? No. But I can spend hours thinking about how Mandelbrot’s “theory of roughness” considers the infinite repetition in a cloud or in a floret of cauliflower—all in an effort to measure chaos. Mandelbrot suggested that, if we are willing to change our perspective—zooming in or panning out—we will see patterns in the seemingly chaotic placement of trees in a forest or in the formation of a nautilus shell. “Self-similarity” he called it.
If you look at Woodlawn from a distance, you see a bucolic estate, the offspring of Mt. Vernon, a witness to the infancy of our nation. Look more closely, and you see a plantation worked by generations of enslaved people. Even the tall case clock in the entrance hall, a handsome status symbol, is carved by a man is who is not his own man. Step back and you see Quakers, freed Blacks, and Baptists working the land that is, in fact, their land, a rebuke to the slave labor. Step back again, you see me: a singular white woman in the air-conditioned Underwood Room, typing on her laptop, sipping a venti Americano, and transmitting her thoughts out into the ether, so certain of their importance.
The concept of the multiverse strikes me less as an invention of science fiction than as a lens through which to view history. In his essay “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates declares, “To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.” As the kids say, “This thing has layers.”
The Woodlawn mansion is neatly divided into five mirrored parts. Someone out there (not me) can calculate within a few inches the exact area of this Georgian home. And that counts for something, especially when it comes to moving furniture or figuring out how many people to invite to a party. But it’s that historical multiverse that I’m interested in. The part that defies inches and feet.
Were there good people living at Woodlawn? Yes. Were there bad people? Yes. Were they the same people? Often, yes. It depends on the angle. It depends on who you are.
Is Woodlawn beautiful, a marvel of American craftsmanship? Yes. Was it built by enslaved people? Also, yes. Will the preservation of this estate hurt or heal? Yes. History is not a yes-or-no question, not either/or. It is both. It is “and.” It is a hyphen and a slash.
The Extreme and Mean Ratio at Woodlawn
In defiance of the boxwood mob and pink riot of crepe myrtle, the house
is a balanced equation. Five-part Georgian symmetry. Euclidian proportions.
Outside the circle of estate-mandated lawn, shadows gather and scatter
beneath the white oaks. Something pecks. Something scratches
out a rude tune in the undergrowth. Meanwhile the house holds out
its arms, holds up the walls of reason and respectability that slaves built.
The house is composed of living quarters and working quarters,
Each quarter connected to the next by a room called a “hyphen.”
The house says, “I have more to say.” The house says, “I am a compound
adjective for order.” In response, a mockingbird cries, “Alarm!”
or “Alone!” or “Food.” No one knows these things. The slaves whispered
into the soil. Cured, fried, and baked, weaving threads of smoke into a story
only the sky could read. Still, the house says, “I am the golden ratio.”
I think the house is confused. Self-similarity does not equal
phi. A nautilus shell isn’t infinite so much as it never stops
telling itself the same story. Wandering from room to room,
witnessing the hand-stamped cornices, the Flemish bond brick,
the firm rebuke of aberrance, I ask where the house servants slept.
“Wherever they could. In the kitchen, in the hallway, on the floor
of their master’s bedroom.” Like slashes, I think. Living/working quarters.
A fraction. A division. A ratio of an entirely different color.
On the second-to-last day of my residency, I took a midday constitutional, despite the 90-degree temperature and my ill-fitting sandals that skidded out from under me on the gravel paths. I walked past Arcadia’s Hilltop Farm, in between the old Grand View home and the maintenance garage, and then I turned left down a shady lane, finding myself at the Otis Mason House and the old Sharpe Stable Complex, both closed for restorations.
As I leaned on the whitewashed fence, taking in the porch overcome by vines and the peeling paint, a flock of blue jays kicked up a racket. Their screeching bounced back and forth from one side of the lane to the other, from tree to tree, like a perpetual panic machine. I looked around for a fox, a stray cat, even a car—for the interloper that had spooked the jays. Not spotting anything, I moseyed back up the lane toward the mansion. The bird noise died out behind me just as suddenly as it had begun. “Strange,” I thought, “It’s almost like they were afraid of me.”
Me. Not the thing I assumed was hiding in the grass or quietly climbing the tree. Me, the one surveying the land, making myself completely at home, assuming anything else was the interloper, the threat. Assuming that my perspective had been the only one.
Jessica Rapisarda is a poet and essayist. She has been published in phoebe, Capsule Stories, Grace & Gravity, jubilat, The Potomac Review, HuffPost, The Good Men Project, and more. She was a cast member of the Listen to Your Mother DC storyteller series. She teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College, where she serves on the editorial board of The Northern Virginia Review. Before succumbing to the siren song of the classroom, Jessica worked as a strategic communications analyst for the Intelligence Community, a freelance parenting writer, and as an editor for the National Academy of Sciences, among other things. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Jessica now resides with her husband and 8-year-old son in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow her at jessicarapisarda.com.