356: “A Thing on Its Way Out” (Becky Chambers)

                “It’s pretty here,” Dex said. […]
                “Yes, it is, Mosscap said, as if making a decision within itself. “It is. Dying things often are.”
                Dex raised an eyebrow. “That’s a little macabre.”
                “Do you think so?” said Mosscap with surprise. “Hmm. I disagree.” It absently touched a soft fern growing nearby, petting the fronds like fur. “I think there’s something beautiful about being lucky enough to witness a thing on its way out.”
                -Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built

                A few weeks ago my partner touched the porch railing, and it sagged away from her fingers, the rotted wood giving way. The railing leaning out. She caught it, leaned it back in place, but it’s all going to come down pretty soon. The wood’s too far gone to hold for long. Which reminds me of the soft place in my kitchen floor, and the crumbling steps in front of my door, and the truth is, I like those things.
                Lately it feels like lots of things are ending. Some of my good friends are finishing their graduate programs and moving away. I’ve lived far away from some of my other friends for a long time now, and over the last tenish years I’ve been accepting that I won’t live close to all of them ever again. I hope I’ll live close to some of them. I’m also finishing my own MFA, of course, and moving away from a lot of what I’ve been studying. Letting go of some of the perspectives and questions I’ve held onto for a long time. Letting go, in some places, of my pretense of certainty. Steps crumbling.
                Wild-Built contrasts a metal building, a construction that can at best stand out of place until it breaks, with presences that decay and give themselves to other things. I like that idea. I hold onto “my ideas” a lot, I’ve learned dreams about immortality going on forever, but I don’t actually feel like I need those. There’s that saying “every ending is a new beginning,” but that shifts the emphasis to beginnings again. The truth is I like endings. The soft wood giving way.

355: “Everything Talks” (Seanan McGuire)

                “Everything talks, human…Most [people] simply can’t listen.” 
                -Seanan McGuire, Across the Green Grass Fields

                Across the Green Grass Fields takes us to a magic land where centaurs herd unicorns like humans herd cattle, and all kinds of hoofed creatures—kelpies, fauns, minotaurs—walk the hills. The story also confronts and rejects the thinking/unthinking divide fantasy books so often maintain: some of the creatures (unicorns and kelpies) are at first presented as beasts, useful for their milk and meat or else dangerous, and some of the creatures (centaurs and fauns) are more “human-like” in wanting and talking. Everything talks, one of the kelpie “beasts” eventually tells our heroine. The divide between thinking and unthinking doesn’t actually exist. So we can try to listen.
                I love that. I also wonder about how Across the Green Grass Fields reimagines this cultural trope. 
                 In the last month or so I’ve been gardening in my friend’s yard. We dug up part of the lawn, turned over the soil, spread compost and planted seeds. This week we made a little fence because rabbits are eating the spinach we were hoping to eat. One of my favorite things about gardening, about being outside in all sorts of ways, is the opportunity to be inside a world that is so clearly engaged in a wider current of being. These trees. This dirt. A worm. The rabbits, and the little nibbled spinach leaves. In a recent conversation, a friend mentioned how so much of our lived reality happens inside constructed spaces scaled to our bodies. Couches, doors, chairs, beds, frying pans, computer keyboards. Go for a hike or lie down in a garden without your tools, and other scales become so apparent—the intricacies of the grass roots, the branching canopy laced across the sky. I want to listen, like Across the Green Grass Fields says, but the story also says that everything “talks.” Read one way, that feels heartfelt and true. Everything talks. Read another way, talking—vocal cords and tongues and exhaled air to make intelligible sounds—is just one way of communicating, and I worry about making talking the metaphor for all communication, the test for any kind of “intelligent” being-ness. I want a kind of story that creates ideas/connections/relations between humans and other-than-humans, not by saying they’re “like us” in talking, but by recognizing the life of creatures that are not as we are. Isn’t how we are itself only one, very very specific way of being?

354: “And Thank You” (Ross Gay)

                “Good bye, I mean to say.
                And thank you. Every day.”
                -Ross Gay, “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude”

                Today I taught my last class of the Odyssey Project. Now I’m sitting here, trying to make sense of what I’m thinking and feeling—trying to make it into something I could write and share here, as an Uproar post—and instead of anything else I feel a quiet, full kind of sad. 
                Once, when I was a kid, I remember running outside early one morning after a freeze. I think my mom must have told me “it froze last night!” The frosted grass pressed and gave against my feet. There was an old bucket next to our house, a thing I almost never paid attention to, though a few times before I’d noticed it after a rain. Brimming. Like someone could drop a bucket into the sky and pull back the fullness of the night behind the clouds. That morning the bucket was full, and frozen over. I remember the clearness of the ice. I remember the cracks in it, fractures down through the surface. I remember my hands aching toward numb when I broke off a piece and picked it up, a little windowpane showing me the side of the house and my fingertips. There’s a metaphor here about water, and time: about the moments, the rains, that run past our hands,  that run into the ground and nourish roots we can’t see. About endings and beginnings. There’s also the ice. The coldness of it. The closeness. The touch.
                Tonight, sitting here, I thought I would write about some ‘last thing’ one of my students said after class. Instead I’m thinking about smiles, and finding myself smiling. I’m thinking about the hellos, the rearranging of chairs, the walk down Green Street, the chats in the hallway before class, the goodnights, week after week, as we finished our class at 8:30 and usually stayed a bit longer to chat. I’m glad to still be the kid picking up a piece of ice with wonder. I’m glad for the hellos and goodnights. And thank you, I mean to say. Every day.

353: “What Is Space, To You?” (Becky Chambers)

                “What we want you to ask yourselves is this: what is space, to you? Is it a playground? A quarry? A flagpole? A classroom? A temple? Who do you believe should go, and for what purpose? Or should we go at all?” -Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate

                Yesterday I went on a walk. I found myself watching all the pink magnolia petals on the sidewalk—crushed to brown and half crushed to brown and freshly fallen. I found myself thinking I should go another twenty minutes to make sure I moved that day. I found myself wondering about all the different things I sometimes mean when I say, “I’m going for a walk.” I mean exercise. I mean a time of paying attention to my feet, the trees, the wind. I mean getting to where I’m going. I mean wandering. I mean time with a friend, focused on each other by sharing these steps. I mean chasing some thought I can’t quite find.
                That conceptual play, that question about what we say and what we mean, and what else we might mean, is my favorite part of Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught, If Fortunate. It’s a novella intent on asking questions. What is space, to you? A playground for your delight? A quarry with valuable resources? A flagpole where we hang our national pride? It’s a style of question I find myself asking a lot. What is education, to you? Is it professional preparation? Is it a shield privilege builds around itself? A walk through wander?
                When you walk, what are all the different things you’re doing?

352: “Maybe It’s Down This Street” (Ross Gay)

                “For instance: I love not getting the groceries in from the car in one trip. Or better yet, I love walking around a city, ostensibly trying to get somewhere, perhaps without all the time in the world, perhaps with, and despite the omniscient machine in my pocket frying my sperm, vibrating to remind me of said frying— just wandering. Maybe it’s down this street. Maybe it’s down this one. Maybe you’re with a friend, and maybe the inefficient will make you closer.”
                -Ross Gay, “Inefficiency,” The Book of Delights

                I do this thing where I ruin books. Because the thing is, books have page numbers. They have these little squiggles in the corner that tell me I’m on page 17 (there are 372 in the book), I’m on page 21 (there are still 372 in the book), and when I’ve “had a lot of reading” in my graduate program, or when I’m feeling invested in accomplishing something and really I should be past page 21 by now, I look at the page numbers and I ruin the book. I feel slow. Time feels sluggish, and too fast, and it slips by without me managing much. I lose track of what’s happening in this paragraph and have to start again, and try to push myself to be faster. And reading doesn’t feel like anything I’ve ever liked.And then this morning.
                And then M. A. Carrick’s The Mask of Mirrors, and my couch, and my blanket, and this morning. I ruined it for the first few pages. Ruined it a little bit more. Then the book was like walking around a city, a new city where I didn’t know anyone, but I was meeting friends. Each street led to another street, another bridge over the river, and all of a sudden I care about these people. I like the masks they’re wearing. All of a sudden I feel the current that runs through the river, all of a sudden nothing’s sudden, nothing’s sodden with my determination to get through this. Reading’s a delight. The blanket’s a delight. Remembering Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights is a delight. Writing to you, rambling about this, it’s a delight, and it’s a bit messy, and next time I’m not going to get the groceries from the car in one trip.

351: “Paratexts” (Gerard Genette)

                “[Paratexts like titles, prefaces, and illustrations “surround” and “extend” a text] precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of the verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world.”
                -Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation

                I’d like to write a science fiction novella that looks like, and says it is, a field guide to birds. Birds of Santa Rosa, California, I might call it. The first page might have an “Amber Hummingbird,” with a sketch of the creature sipping from a flower. Later pages would have blackfooted ducks, drones, mechanical eagles, paper airplanes, red tailed hawks, flying skeletons, sandpipers with their long legs. I’m very much not a birder. As far as I know I made up the amber hummingbird. But imagining these creatures, extinct and emerging, beautiful and frightening, would be a fun way to explore home, to explore the childhood wonder I felt when I saw seagulls bobbing on the waves before taking flight, to explore loss and drought and memory and what I mean when I say us. Which is related to what I mean when I say you, or even other. To do all that, I think the book might gain a lot by pretending to be something it wasn’t. A guidebook.
                All the trappings around a text invite us to interact with it in different ways. If something says “a novel” on the cover, I tend to read it one way. If it says “a dictionary,” or if it looks like a news article, I read it in other ways. In reading Genette I’m drawn to how we can play with paratexts, with the form and trappings of the ‘thing,’ to explore ideas in different  ways. I think there’s something about the birds of Santa Rosa that I haven’t seen in a book yet. It’s not a diagram of common markings, dutifully labeled “male” and “female.” It’s a taxonomy of phylum, class, order, suborder, and family. It might be something about families, the ones I live in, the ones I see in bird’s nests and behind the window when I get back home.What would you put in a book of Birds of My Hometown? Where might I walk if I followed your guide?

350: “A Poor Translation” (Natalie Diaz)

                “This is a poor translation, like all translations.”
                -Natalie Diaz, “The First Water Is the Body”

                A few days ago in class we started reading poetry from Natalie Diaz. Afterward I heard two of my friends talking. Edvin said the poem we’d just read, “The First Water Is The Body,” just kept getting better and better. He’d read the poem a couple times that morning but it hadn’t made sense. Now, talking it over, the poem was alive. 
                Micha answered, “When I’m in my efficient zone poetry doesn’t land with me.”
                “Maybe I should read these at night,” said Edvin.
                I think I should read more poetry at night. I’ve been thinking a lot about how a series of thoughts is a series of thoughts but it’s also a way of thinking. When I’m To-Do-Listing my day, I’m arranging myself and my energy and the day in a certain way. A get-through-the-list kind of way. When I read poetry that way, the poetry doesn’t mean much. 
                Maybe this is a translation of that moment, of the connection and chuckle I felt as I heard Edvin and Micha talk. Maybe it’s a poor translation. I’m trying to explain something, but what I’m looking at isn’t something I really want to explain. I want to—share? Read? Hear read? Hear sung?
                How about this, then: for years and years I’ve said I don’t know how to dance. I still say that. Sometimes I’ve watched people dance, watched how graceful and smooth they seem in their bodies, and wondered if they have something I don’t. How do they look so inside themselves, there in the grocery store aisle? In 2019 I started taking dance classes, and lately I’ve been doing bachata lessons. Dance still feels like something (remember to get through your to do list!) I haven’t learned. But the other week I heard music. A music that moved, maybe; in Diaz’s poem, river is a verb and moves. There were eddies in the sounds of the song. There were currents. I felt more held by them than holding them, and I realized I was moving.

349: “To Know What It Is Like” (Charlesia Mckinney)

                “What does someone need to know about you to know about what it is like to be you?”
                -Dr. Charlesia McKinney sharing a question she uses in interviews

                I love the question. I’ve started playing with versions of it for my own work. Lately I’ve been trying, ‘Would you tell me a story that has something to do with who you are as you come into this moment?’ I like stories because they let us tell a movement, a change—not a thought but a bit of being. I’ve also been wondering about the question: could I ever tell you enough to answer it? Could you ever really share what it’s like to be you? Right now, tonight, as the rain falls in Illinois, uncertainty moves back and the love stays. I love this question.
                I don’t know how to answer it. I suppose that’s one thing I could share to help say what it’s like to be me: my brain often moves in a few directions at once, and then falls over, or I hesitate not sure whether I think this or that, whether to lead with the story about the trees or a moment from how overwhelmed I was this afternoon. (The answer usually seems to be both. Inside that answer there are lots more questions about how I become/discover/go about creating me). Here’s another thing: one of my friends, an artist, said she loved being alone to make art, and in my art I often have the opposite experience—I love art because of how it lives within a community that goes beyond me. Here’s another thing: I like breakfasts with lemon in them because the lemon tastes bright, like daylight, like waking up. Like now starting to smile.
                What about you? What would you share?

348: “Para” (J. Hillis Miller)

                “‘Para’ is a double antithetical prefix signifying at once proximity and distance, similarity and difference, interiority and and exteriority…something simultaneously this side of a boundary line […] and also beyond it, equivalent in status and also secondary…”
                -J. Hillis Miller, quoted in Gerard Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation

                Paranormal. Paralegal. Parasocial. And then I go off looking for more of these words, and wondering about what I find.
I’ve been playing with a little movement exercise. If you’d like to try, it goes like this: rub your thumb and forefinger together. Feel that touch. Then try to separate the sensations  coming from your thumb and the sensations coming from your finger. If you move your thumb to include the edge of your fingernail, it might be easier. I think I can feel it as different. I can also feel how these ‘different’ sensations wash back together.
                To put it another day: it’s been a heck of a day. Last minute arrangements surrounding a three-minute talk I’m giving at next Tuesday’s research communication event, details about filming one of my Voices projects, finishing pages of my novel to send to my advisor, a rehearsal, and then it was time to teach. Sitting down to write this—late, it’s been that kind of week—I feel exhausted and energized. Far away and right here. Engaged and completely confused. 
                Paratransit. I think I’ve heard that one, too. It’s something to do with buses, but just now I’d like to think it’s the funniness of going from here to there. Of these words I’m typing in an Illinois classroom bouncing somewhere to shine out from your screen. Of the way my head turns to you, trying to imagine my way to your ‘here,’ and then turns back to writing, and then turns with a lot of excitement to going to bed. 
                Parasensory. Paraphernalia. Paradox.

347: Unkempting (Ogden Nash & A Garden)

“This is my dream.
It is my own dream. 
I dreamt it.
I dreamt that my hair was kempt.
Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.”
                -Ogden Nash

                Earlier this week a group of us helped my friend Dusty dig up their lawn and make a garden. We spread nine months’ worth of compost from their kitchen, lay down in the sun to laugh and talk and be quiet, and came very close to accidentally cutting what we think is Dusty’s internet cable. It was hiding beneath the grass. I haven’t washed my favorite jeans yet. The knees are still all muddy. My hands are tired. 
                I think one of my favorite moments is when the world, all green and growy, all banana-peel-decaying and slimy and nutrient rich, sidles close and ruffles things. I had planned ‘to work’ those afternoons. Instead I dug up a lawn. I planned to dig. Sometimes instead roots caught at my shovel. Sometimes instead we ate apple pie together, grinning. I tasted some dirt on my thumb. Sometimes we move into houses with lawns, those strange historical artifacts that (as far as I understand) are woven up with signaling class (look how rich I am! I can have these extensive ‘grounds’ and pay somebody to grow nothing on them) and with the fertilizer industry (your lawn should really be perfect green all the time, shouldn’t it?). Sometimes we dig lawns up to try and grow spinach, garlic, corns, beans, and squash. Whenever I stop to notice, the ground is reaching back, unkempting me, my put-togetherness smudged off in dirt and sweat and an evening’s breezes.