392: “In My Nice Pink Slippers” (Ada Limón)

“So we might understand each other better:
I’m leaning on the cracked white window ledge
in my nice pink slippers lined with fake pink fur. 
The air conditioning is sensational. Outside,
we’ve put up cheap picnic table beneath the maple
but the sun’s too hot to sit in…”
                -Ada Limón, “How Far Away We Are,” Bright Dead Things

                So we might understand each other better: I’m sitting at my kitchen table while last night’s snow melts, washing the dark streets into mischievous mirrors that half hide and half reflect the tall trees above them. An hour ago I had lunch. Lentils, onions, zucchini, kale. Delicious. Steaming hot. In a little while I’ll go for a walk, unless I lie down on the floor and watch the place where the walls and the ceiling become the corner.
                Earlier today I talked with my PhD advisor Lindsay Rose Russell about how I start approaching gender and gendered identities in the first chapters of my novel. We were sitting at Cafe Kopi, a table and her tea and a pleasant hour of conversation settled between us. She listened, and thought for a moment, and then started, “Well, in my own experience…” and went into a little story about a moment she’d lived that started forming the way she thought about gender. I listened to that story inside the story of this snowy day, our wooden chairs, this afternoon talking together at the cafe while a stranger I recognized (I’m not sure from where?) came and sat at a nearby table.
                Limón (and Lindsay) suggest a kind of writing, a kind of inviting through words, that I’ve been more and more drawn to in the last few years: the chance to ground whatever we’re sharing in a place where we live. Limón’s table beneath the maple tree, my kitchen table, the cafe, the childhood classroom Lindsay told me about — I think we understand each other better through living together, the embodied moments of this snow melting, that light falling, wherever you are. Sometimes we get those moments in person. Sometimes we can share them from far away when we start writing by saying, I wanted to tell you, I’m sitting at 3:13 this snowy afternoon and outside the streets are mischievous mirrors.

391: “A Striped Dolphin School” (Alexis Pauline Gumbs)

                “In a striped dolphin school, only up to one-third of the school is visible at the surface. What scale and trust would it take to rotate our roles, to work not to fulfill a gendered lifetime ideal (husbandwifemotherfatherdaughterson) but to show up and sink back, knowing there is enough of all the forms of nurturance to go around in cycles?”
                -Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals

                I’ve been thinking about the different roles I take up in this dolphin school community of mine. Cook, sometimes, on lazy Sunday mornings, and sharer-of-food on Sunday night when a friend comes over or Thursday night when I go over to a friend’s. Teacher. Student. But more than those nouns, I’ve been thinking about the ways we show up and sink back. On Saturday I talked for almost two hours with a friend I’ve been missing for months. It was wonderful, and now it might be another few months until we have a chance like that again. The other day on the bus I leaned my head on the window and watched the water bead down the glass. I forgot my keys, and a friend let me into the office. I bought another friend nachos. I heard about someone’s break. Someone asked me, “How do you make community,” and I said “I don’t know,” and we talked about it for a while.
                All this becomes a thought about community, about our interweaving lives. About the chance to be nurtured by (and to help nurture) so many of the swimmers around me in some many changing ways. I’m so grateful for that school, and for all the ways it teaches me — lets me — inspires me — to be part of it.

390: “We Don’t All See The Same” (Zen Cho)

“‘We, uh, we don’t all see the same thing when we look at something.’
‘True,’ said Sherng. He probably thought Jess was reciting a platitude, instead of making a statement that was very literally true for her at that moment.”
                -Zen Cho, Black Water Sister

                I love this quote in so many ways, but I suppose I’ll talk about just two.
                One: a friend of mine likes watching horror movies. I hate horror movies. But as we sit and talk, it’s clearer and clearer that we don’t do the same thing when we’re watching them. For me—it’s hard to say, but they feel like jump scares and gore-for-gore’s sake, technologically enabled. I don’t like those images in my head. Besides, their horror feels like a distraction from all the very real things we do have to fear. For my friend, I learn as I listen, some horror movies create space for exactly those very real things we have to fear. They create a stage on which we can look at what we’re usually so busy ignoring. They also, sometimes, create a kind of safety: by having a space to look at horror, my friend also finds more space to look in other directions.
                I want to watch horror movies the way my friend does. We have a loose plan to try sometime: they’ll pick a movie, and we’ll watch it together. Even that, sitting side by side, won’t be enough. Maybe they’ll talk to me about how the movie unfolds for them, about how they respond to it. Probably I’ll have to practice. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to be less sure— less sure of me, of my assumptions, of how I usually do things, so another way of doing can come in.
                Two: so many important statements can be mistaken for platitudes. I had another friend who suggested that most of the lessons we need to really understand are simple, the kind of sentences a five year old could easily come up with. The thing is, my friend said, it takes us decades to get back to that simplicity and feel it. 
                “Like what kind of lessons?” I asked them.
                “I can’t tell you,” they said. “I’m still trying to understand them. And besides, they’d sound like platitudes.”

389: “What The Hell I Actually Do” (Sherman-Palladino)

“I take meetings, I make phone calls, I shuffle paper around, and I have no idea what the hell I actually do.”
“Maybe if you did you’d like it more.”
                -Amy Sherman-Palladino, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

                Partway through my MFA, I talked with a professor about “understanding.” “Understanding”—knowledge—didn’t really seem like the goal my readings and conversations and writings moved towards. My professor asked me what I was (trying) to move towards, instead, and at a loss for words, I eventually suggested “engagement.” I’m not sure if that’s “right”—I’m not sure if it needs to be—but every now and then I go back and wonder about it. Tonight my friend Ishita told me a story in which she, celebrating with friends, said happily that her core value was romance. A romance with the world. A resonating connection.
                So many of the delights in my life come from being engaged: from noticing this as something that matters, that I want to pay attention to. I can hate sweeping, or I can love it when I feel the weight of the broom, hear the rustle of the bristles across the floor. Sometimes, when I pick up a new book, there’s a moment where I can’t get in yet. I don’t know who these names are, what world they’re in. If it’s nonfiction, I don’t know the perspective of the author, the contexts of the words they’re sharing. And then, when I keep reading, the book becomes a world that opens. Sometimes I’m sitting trying to write and my nieces come running up because I’m a dragon and it’s time to play tag. I get, of course, that sometimes there are good reasons to say “not right now, I want to finish this,” but I love the moments when I say “yes” and go running off with them—when I feel my stretching dragon wings—when their running feet aren’t a distraction or an interruption, but part of the place we’re sharing. 
                Maybe I should go back and tell that professor I meant “connection.” Or maybe I meant each conversation, each playful, confused, excited exchange we share, dancing together between questions and thoughts and the world in which we have them.

388: Bones and Flesh (Anzaldúa)

                “[…] the bones often do not exist prior to the flesh, but are shaped after a vague and broad shadow of its form is discerned or uncovered during beginning, middle and final stages of the writing.”
                -Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands

                Anzaldúa is talking about writing, about fleshing out (as the phrase goes) an idea once we already have the bones, but the thought sticks with me both as a literal description of a growing body and as a metaphor for so much. We have so many phrases about backbones, about skeleton crews (the minimum that can still function) or characteristics that are bred in the bone (and therefore hard to change), about skeletons as the ‘essential’ structures that hold us up, but it’s not like bones do much on their own. It’s not like bones create the flesh around them. So I sit here, thinking about soft stem cells, thinking about the softness in which all of me coalesced together. 
                And then metaphors. So often I’m left, wondering when something happened, when I started a certain habit (when did I start waking up later?) or a certain project (when did I really start writing my novel?), wondering what the essential core is for some part of my life. The bones. Someone asked me, “When did Urbana start feeling like home?” Or another time, “When did you and Dusty become friends?” Or another time, “When did you know”—that you were in love, that you were happy (or sad), that you were connected (or alone), that it was time for a walk (or a rest)? And I think about vague and broad shadows. I think about what is “discerned or uncovered during beginning, middle, and final stages.” Perhaps paradoxically, I start moving away from “stages”—from beginnings and middles and ends—towards ways of being that are growing and dying in many places in many ways, all at once. And that’s lovely.

387: “How Can Anyone Say What Happens” (Rumi)

                “How can anyone say what happens, even if each of us dips a pen a hundred million times into ink?” -Rumi, “The Steambath”

                Lately I’ve been happier, and happier that I can’t explain very much at all. Maybe happy’s not the right word?
                I keep reading another book (or talking to another person) who suggests, think of it this way. And this way is lovely.
                 I used to think I’d figure things out. I remember a Philosophy class that was designed to walk through one ethical system after another. Was morality based on what some particular God ‘wanted’? Was it based on virtues? Or the highest good for the highest number? Or…something else? The brilliant professor arranged the semester so each system’s failings pushed us toward a new system. And that system had failings, too. At the end we were back where we started. I was as confused as ever. I had more questions than ever. At the time I thought I’d go around the circle a few more times, I’d “figure out where I stood.” Looking back, now, I notice how we looked at the world in lots of different ways. I think about perspectives I’ve heard since, perspectives outside the tradition that class was designed to explore. The manyness—the muchness—is delightful.
                Maybe meaning is less a book on a pedestal, ink on a clear page, and more a whirl of autumn colors above a rich soil full of decaying leaves, and next year’s new leaves asleep, but not asleep forever.

386: “The Actual Speech Is Lost” (Amalia Gnanadesikan)

                “[In writing,] Even in cases of dictation or courtroom stenography, much information about the actual speech is lost, such as intonation and emotional content. As a result, reading is not at all the same as listening to a recording (and can therefore, fortunately, proceed much faster).” -Amalia Gnanadesikan, The Writing Revolution

                Writing doesn’t encode most of what’s going on: in my head, right now; in my experience as I sit on the couch, typing. My experience—my thoughts—are tied to where I’m thinking, where I am, so often when I write I want to tell you part of that. I want to tell you that I’m visiting my family in California. I want to tell you about the dog sleeping beside me, and that this morning there was ice on the bucket outside, bright and alive beneath my fingers. Writing (Gnanadesikan points out) tries to preserve a tiny slice of what is actually happening when we talk and interact. I can bend the narrow path of these letters toward the ice, toward my family visit, but the path still misses most of what is. I still haven’t said most of why Gnanadesikan’s line has been reverberating in my head for months now.
                Sometimes this limitation of writing frustrates me. Just now I also find it delightful. The narrowness of the form opens a different kind of space. Think how long it would take to try and communicate your “everything” in any given moment. By communicating a tiny sliver, writing lets us read and write faster. It lets us pass tiny notes across distances and through time. You’ve been looking at this for two minutes, and you know I’m going on about writing, and visiting my family, and a dog. I can’t tell you the forests of thought and confusion and wonder I’m walking through. I can’t even give you an acorn. But I can write acorn. The acorn you have is your own, maybe maybe from my word and all the other people who’ve said “acorn” to you, and the acorns you’ve seen. They’re such flimsy, little things, these sentences I send you. Plenty of acorns decay away to nothing. Some grow wide oaks of ideas and relationships and ways of looking at the world. And either way they’re lovely things, these little mysteries with so much left out, these seeds.

385: A Translator Introduces “Me To The World” (Italo Calvino)

                “Without translation I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” -Italo Calvino in conversation with Frank MacShane, 1983

                I’ve heard a lot about the difficulty of translating poetry, and lots of it is pretty absolute and fatalistic. (People quote Mark Twain as saying, “Poetry is what’s lost in translation,” though I’m not sure if he ever said). One common idea, as far as I can tell, is that there is something ineffable and irrational and sentimental and only itself about poetry, and no one could translate that.
                Over the last month’s I’ve been helping my friend Rachel Gu translate her poetry from Mandarin into English, and it’s absolutely wonderful. We sit side by side. Rachel reads the Mandarin out loud, and I don’t understand a word, but I listen. Then we talk about the poem in a general way, and each line, and different important words, and the experiences she’s thinking about. We play together with English words and phrases, approaches and forms. “What if we focused on what this character was doing? What if we described the scene a little more? What image is important here?” In a way, you could say Rachel and I have been translating these poems since before they were written. We’ve been friends for a while now. We’ve done art together. As we play together with another translation, Rachel laughs and says, “You already know me so well.” And some things we don’t know. Sometimes we don’t translate a key word, and instead add a translation note at the end, talking about that word and all the different things it can mean within the complex beautiful web of the language and experience it’s written in.
                For me, the whole “poetry can’t be translated” thing feels connected to a strict attachment to (and understanding of) self. As though something is itself and clearly itself and isn’t ever also something else,  and any letting go, any mixing or washing about of colors and sounds, takes away what “it” was. That feels connected to a Greek mereological essentialism that would say your car isn’t your car anymore if a single screw is replaced. (The Ship of Theseus). In my teens that kind of attachment, that attempted certainty, seemed enticing. Now I’m so much happier to sit next to Rachel laughing, wondering, confused, sometimes hurt, swapping words back and forth. The English “version” and the Mandarin “version” are not the same. The lines don’t line up. But Rachel reads the English and says, “Yes, that’s it,” and I listen to the Mandarin like an ocean I can’t quite touch, and then get to find the English, phrase by phrase, as a field where we wander together. The two poems aren’t the same. They change in our hands. They change in translation. And I absolutely love that. I love the opportunity to be otherwise, to be touched, to be held, to be different as we talk and learn together. I suppose something might be lost. So much more feels found.

384: “Hopefully, Ever After” (Roshani Chokshi)

                “The king and queen did not live happily, but hopefully, ever after. Which, in my opinion, is a far better compass by which to guide your life.” 
                -the witch in Once More Upon A Time, by Roshani Chokshi

                A friend told me once that it’s important to have something you’re looking forward to. The weekend, and some ice cream on the couch. Thursday night, and board games with friends. Camping over the summer. And when they told me that I thought, yes, that’s true. So I tried to make plans and ‘give’ myself something to look forward to.
                When I first read Chokshi’s book, I thought, well, what about hoping for what is? Hope for winter’s hush, and the snow gathering outside. Hope for spring, and thin shoots sprouting up where the snow melts. Hope for the rich dark that’s outside my window. And I like that, as a kind of guiding idea. A compass, Chokshi said.
                But what if the hopefully isn’t about the thing happening, but about the thing as it already is? Walking today with Chokshi in my mind, I tapped my knuckles on a big granite boulder outside the library and suddenly had the thought, there’s hope in that. Not “the boulder will be there tomorrow, hopefully,” not something reaching forward in time, but there is hope in this rock the same way there’s quartz and feldspar. Hopeful is what it is. It’s full of hope like a lake is full of water. I’m still not sure what that might mean, but for a moment it was like the wise witch had tapped my shoulder.

383: A Walk With Bees (Kleinman & Suryanarayanan)

                “The real-time, informal [epistemic forms of commercial beekeepers] provide knowledge that is meaningful and useful […] but is illegitimate in the worlds of professional honey bee toxicologists and government regulators.”
                -Daniel Kleinman and Sainath Suryanarayanan, “Dying Bees and the Social Production of Ignorance”

                A few weeks ago I was on a walk late at night, and my friend said we should stop by Blair Park with the zip line. During the day it’s packed with kids, but at night big kids like us can get a turn. I thought it was a fantastic idea. I turned to walk that way, heading north, and my friend paused behind me. They pointed east. “This way, right?” they said. And I paused.
                I paused because, after a moment of thinking, east was absolutely the way we should go. But when I walk to Blair Park I go through one neighborhood, and when I walk to my friend’s house I go through another neighborhood. I’d never walked from my friend’s neighborhood directly to the park. Without really thinking I’d turned to piece together the familiar roads where I always went, but now I turned to follow my friend. Looking back later, the moment made me think about Kleinman and Suryanarayanan.
                Their point with bees is not just about the paths we walk. It’s about what those paths show us, and what those paths encourage us to miss. It’s about knowledges that, in my mental landscape, have nowhere to be. Someone who spends a lot of time on zip lines knows something about momentum that a crash test operator might miss (and vice versa, I think). So I’ve been asking what knowledges I’ve been taught to listen to a lot. I’ve been thinking about what knowledges I’ve been taught aren’t even “there.” I’ve been following friends, and going back to the zip line, the rush of the night air.