362: “Clowns Need Problems” (Mario Lopez)

                “I love clowning. I love to—to—to do stupid things. And clowns need problems to live, so I love to be like, ‘Oh hey!’”
                -Mario Lopez, a magician on Penn & Teller: Fool Us

                I spent a lot of today making ‘obstacles’ with my two nieces. It started with little balance beams and towers for our ‘finger people’ to climb, and we took turns jumping a hand from block to block. Then one of them wanted an obstacle she could do. So we started crawling under things and balancing on things and laughing. We put all the chairs from the dining room into a line and tried to crawl under them. We built little block towers on each seat so we’d know if we bumped a chair. We stacked blocks with our toes. It was silly, challenging, delightful. I’ve done a very, very little bit of clowning in a theater class. It was so much fun. One question led to another, one problem to another, and the whole thing spiraled out—a something we were sharing. 
                Sometimes a day starts to feel like one problem after another, one distraction after another, one thing I messed up after another. It feels like Mario Lopez clowning around on stage, trying to stop the salt that’s magically pouring from his hands, his clothes, his feet. But look at his face. He’s laughing, awkward and sheepish and here with us. Scrunched between the chair’s legs and the carpet, blocks clattering down because I’d bumped the chair, I was having a wonderful time. Sometimes when I feel like I keep messing up, I start trying to arrange everything so I won’t run into any problems. But—well, clowns need problems to live. 
                My nieces and I push the couch so it makes a tight corner with the wall, and they go motoring through. I start after them. The corner’s going to be hard, of course, and that’s wonderful.

361: “Because Of My Amazement” (Claribel Alegría)

“Rain is falling
falling
and memories keep flooding by
they show me a senseless
world
a voracious
world–abyss
ambush
whirlwind
spur
but I keep loving it
because I do
because of my five senses
because of my amazement
because every morning,
because forever, I have loved it
without knowing why.”
                -from “Rain” by Claribel Alegría

                I love the cascading finish, the “because—, because—, because—” that sweeps me along on sights and sounds and unknowing. Yesterday it got to 108° in California. Hot like holding a breath. Today I swam through cool water. Close like a kiss. Now a fan whirs. My mom and my younger brother are talking, a murmur like the brooks I remember, running through meadows in the mountains when I was half my brother’s age and my mom and I talked while setting up our tent. 
                Sometimes I look for “becauses.” Why do I live so far from my family? Why do I spend so many hours inside drafts of my novel, wondering about phrases, rearranging words, imagining places? Why does the beginning of this passage from Alegría feel sad to me, and the end feel windswept, bedazzled, bedewed—sweet? Sometimes I tell myself that there doesn’t need to be a because. There is this. This murmur of voices. This whir of fans. I like letting go of because. Reading this, I also like shaping some becauses like the ones Alegría gives me. I live far from my family because of bending curiosities. I’m visiting California because of conversations like running creeks. I’m writing this because today was warm and tonight is getting cool, and because of the water, close as a kiss.

360: Genres We ‘Know How To Do’ (Arkady Martine)

                “When the newsfeeds had switched from local tabloid updates to the cheery pomp and circumstance of impending military action—it seemed to be a genre, something that the Teixcalaanli broadcasters simply knew how to do—”
                -Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

                Lately I’ve been noticing what I ‘know how to do’ in different situations—or at least, what I find myself trying to do. While writing an Uproar post I try to include a personal story, a way that these ideas live through an experience I’ve had. While saying I love you to my partner, I tend toward phrases I like that I’ve heard people use to talk to their partners, or else in-jokes and references to things my partner and I have said together. A kind of shared pattern book of references and words and habits of expression. There are other examples, too: when I’m stressed out from working, I tend to play a game on boardgamearena.com, eat some potato chips, turn to my phone. Sometimes, instead, I listen to some music and move a little, or lay on the floor breathing, or write without worrying where the words go.
                One word I’ve started using for all these different patterns is genre. One wonderful thing about genres is they’re shared. Perhaps it’s possible to have one that’s “just mine,” but most of these patterns are things I’ve seen people do. I’ve been around people who are eating potato chips because they’re worried. I try it, too. Another wonderful thing is that genres are all wound up in culture. As Martine points out, the things we ‘simply know how to do’—like recognizing when you’re being trolled, or posting pictures of your salad to instagram, or saying goodnight (as my family does) with I love you—have a lot to do with how my communities interact. One more thing that’s wonderful about genres is that they’re always changing. I keep wondering: what is possible that I’m not really seeing? What else might I try in this kind of situation? A “genre” doesn’t mean I need to figure out a “better way” right now. It just means that, day by day, I can notice/make/grow/play with these patterns. I can live out different versions of what if as I build these responses that I simply know how to do.

359: “Space Outside” (Becky Chambers)

                “She could view the space outside anytime she pleased from a cupola, but it was easy to lose track of the fact that reality did not end with a bulkhead…”
                -Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few

                Lately I’ve been thinking about how the world stretches out, seamless, past all my surfaces.
                A month ago my friend’s cat crawled down into the air vents. It’s easy to think of the air vents as a kind of other space. As tunnels they connect to where I’m sitting, sure, they move the air, but I don’t think of them as places I could go. I don’t think of them as roads and caves beneath my feet.
                In the last months I’ve been gardening more and that means sinking my fingers into the soil. I love that part. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, and maybe part of that love is realizing the world beneath “the world” I’m used to walking through. Dirt and bugs and roots and rock and coolness and heat, down beneath my feet.
                When I was a kid my family adopted a stray cat because I started feeding it through my second story window when it climbed up onto the roof. The cat made me want to climb onto the roof, too. I watched as this creature came bounding along the top of a fence (a place I didn’t walk) to a tree to the eaves and up to my window. A path I didn’t walk, but a path just as much as the doors and stairs I did walk, and watching I thought about moving on cat feet.
                Digging I think of worming through tunnels. Of holding with grass roots.
                The cat seemed pretty nonplussed when humans took apart some of the air vents to get it out. There’s a picture. The cat is lying in this cool, dark tunnel, paws stretched out, head up, curious, ready.

358: “In Listening” (Jiddu Krishnamurti)

                “Those who love may listen; but it is extremely rare to find a listener. Most of us are after results, achieving goals; we are forever overcoming and conquering, and so there is no listening. It is only in listening that one hears the song of the words.”
                -Jiddu Krishnamurti

                Yesterday I was at Goat Rock Beach in California, a rocky beach, and each wave threw pebbles around my feet. As each wave washed back out, running around the pebbles and carrying them, it made a sound like a huge rainstick—a washing sound, a whooshing sound, and inside all the rocks clicking together. I lay down for a little while and listened. This morning around six, a dog barking. I didn’t particularly think, hurray, a dog barking, but there was something itself in the barking, something full and real in the wash of the sounds. Something lovely.
                I think I disagree with Krishnamurti. I think there are listeners everywhere. I think there are lots of ways of being a listener, and if you look for someone who listens like you do, all the time, you probably won’t find one. Listening can mix in with everything. And I love the idea that listening can come from loving. I find it really useful to think about my bustling habit of “overcoming and conquering” as something that precludes listening. So this morning, at eight am, I’m listening to the memory of the ocean and the barking. I’m listening to the traffic outside and the teapot warming. I’m glad for the chance to sit with this. I don’t mean that I’m listening to the “meaning” of these sounds—sometimes it’s nice to think, ah, yes, that vroom of an engine is someone going somewhere, and I hope they’re well. I’m listening to the sounds. The teapot’s getting louder. Water starting to shake inside. My arm brushes against the chair. And that’s not quite what I mean, either. I mean listen. A bubbling. A rustling. A brushing. A breathing.

357: “Onions Just…” (Becky Chambers)

                “Yeah,” Dex said, tear ducts unleashing. “Onions just…hurt. They…ah, fuck.” […]
                “Goodness,” Mosscap said. It picked up one of the chopped slivers between two fingertips, examining carefully. “It must be very delicious.”
                -Becky Chambers, A Psalm For The Wild-Built

                I like cooking onions. I like the papery texture of the skins. I like how the layers come apart, and the curving way they fit together. I like how the onions roll around on the counter. And yes, I like the taste, but I don’t think the taste’s all of it for me. I like the whole onion-cooking.
                And then there’s the crying. A friend told me you can cry a little less if you put the onions in the freezer for a few minutes before you cut them, and it seems to work, but I don’t do it anymore. At first I usually didn’t remember. Now—I don’t know. I just don’t. It’s not that the sting of my eyes is pleasant, not that, while I’m fumbling for the sink to wash my hands and then splash my face, I’m thinking this is delightful, but something in it is delightful. The stinging of my eyes is part of it. Beyond whether it’s a part that I like or don’t like, it’s part of the all this while I’m cooking, and I don’t mind it. I kinda like it. I like cooking onions.
                This isn’t always true. Sometimes I spill something across the floor and I’m angry, frustrated at the lentils or at me for being so stupid I spilled them. But thinking about onions, I’m sitting with the kind of experience that doesn’t mind parts that sting.

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?