325: “Almost Enchanted” (van Gogh)

                “Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.”
                -Vincent van Gogh

                Last weekend I went camping in the Shawnee National Forest. I sat next to a campfire on ground still wet from yesterday’s rain. I watched sparks float up and hang for a moment like new stars. I picked up acorns and acorn hats, rocks and leaves and pieces of bark like little boats. I looked at a lot of mushrooms. And I thought van Gogh was right. And then I thought, if we fold in the mud and the rain, the trees and the hazy clouds, then we can do one better. It’s not almost enchanted. It is enchanted. 
                There’s something lovely in holding an acorn that’s just opening into a seedling. There’s also something lovely in seeing an acorn half chewed by bugs. They each have their own lift, their own hum. Their own sign of life. Every day since coming back from Shawnee I’ve gone on a walk in my neighborhood. On every walk I’ve picked up one enchanted something to bring back home with me. A stick with moss on it. A bottle cap rusting back into dirt. A round stone that might be at home in a river. I think I’ve been carrying all these, one by one, to remind myself how many ways there are to pick something up. I can pick up the sway of the trees by looking out the window. Pick up the rain soaked earth by smelling it. Pick up the cool taste of water, one last drink at the end of the day, and carry it with me into tomorrow. Enchanted.

324: “Intense Lives” (Elena Ferrante)

                “I started to borrow novels from the circulating library, and read one after the other. But in the long run they didn’t help. They presented intense lives, profound conversations, a phantom reality more appealing than my real life.” -Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name

                I grew up building fairy houses. Some of them were simple, a big leaf propped over the little gap between two stones. Some of them were more elaborate: pebbles and flower petals and twigs arranged so a patch of roots looked like a little city with walkways, rooftops, gardens bursting with life. When my little brother was young I loved making these houses with him. I loved walking through the woods together, watching and listening for a patch of moss or a little pebbly beach that promised, here.
                One of my favorite things art can do is gesture toward the world, enchanting experience with the magic that’s always there. A thought of dragons leaves me staring at the campfire, watching how the flames dance. A witch who speaks bird-language sets me listening to the finches outside. And of course, the tree roots really are walkways to beetles, rooftops to weasels, gardens bursting with life. It’s strange that art can go the other way, too. Turn on too many lights inside, and the windows act like mirrors, giving me back my own searching eyes instead of the night. To put it another way, art can be a hand, but sometimes I get so interested in its tricks and games that I stop noticing what it’s playing with. What it’s touching. I like the tricks and games. But my favorite part is how the hand can point, inviting me in. Inviting me back. Look. Here.

323: “–” (Bill Watterson)

Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

                Imagine the comic without that quiet third frame of Calvin looking at the butterfly. I don’t think it would mean the same thing. The third frame gives me a moment of quiet, a pause as Calvin and I think about what’s been said and wonder what happens next. Wonder how we’ll respond. In the last months, I’ve been wondering about moving that quiet frame around. As I talk with people, and teach, and learn, and wander around with myself, what happens if I put the quiet frame at the beginning of the strip? Or at the end?
                I see the “set up, pause, response” structure a lot. In some ways, I live that structure a lot. I start trying to write about this comic, and then pause for a moment, looking at the screen and the butterfly in my mind. Looking at Calvin’s hands, my hands, holding something. I wonder what’s next. Then I keep writing, or delete what I’ve written so far. The first two frames could be something a friend says, or me falling off my scooter, or showing up at the grocery store to discover there’s no more eggplant. The pause opens a space between that experience and what I’ll do next.
                What if we move the third frame? What if it were at the beginning? When I try to imagine the comic that way, then the quiet first frame of Calvin staring at the jar leaves me uncertain for a moment. I wonder what he’s holding, and why. That unknowing can feel uncomfortable, but it’s also a place in which I’ve been finding a lot of support. It’s a moment before my interpretation crystalizes into the idea, this is what I’m seeing. It’s a moment when I can notice more. To put it another way: pretty much every movie scene would start with an empty room if we started the story sooner. And the room wouldn’t be empty: light, shadow, furniture, the cracks of our masonry crumbling with time, a cat napping in the corner. I wonder what I would see if I thought about all my scenes starting with that extra frame at the beginning.
                What if we let the quiet frame be the end? Then the comic leaves us with Calvin staring at the jar. In lots of ways that might feel less satisfying. The action of letting the butterfly go is a release. It’s a good idea. It makes me feel better. But if the quiet frame came at the end, maybe I would be left wondering what should/would/could happen next. Maybe I’d be left trying to pose my own ending. Maybe I’d stop thinking about an ending, a beginning, and hang there for a moment in opening time.
                As I think about it, I wonder where else I can put a quiet frame.

322: “Chores As Art Compositions” (Alberto Aguilar)

                “Consider household chores as art compositions or performance.” -Alberto Aguilar, quoted by Jorge Lucero in “Instructional Resources as Permission”

                I’ve been wondering about what parts of my life I consider not artistic. Sitting on my couch watching TV, for instance. Shopping for groceries, walking to and from campus, or sweeping the floor. When I was in India, a friend commented on how paying attention to an activity could fill it with presence, with connection. He used the example of brushing your teeth: do it distracted, and it’s another chore. Do it while giving it space, while focusing on it, and it can become something like meditation. Years before, in practicing Aikido, we swept the dojo’s mats before and after every class. This sweeping, this cleaning of the space, was presented as an intentional act—a way of being inside the moment, of preparing for our practice, of building the space for each other. I wonder if these are kinds of art. I wonder what other kinds of art I could do at the gas station, while scrubbing a cook pot, while cleaning out the fridge. I wonder: what is the connection between attention, presence in a moment, and art?
                I think there is a difference between using something as art and considering something as art. In cleaning out the fridge, I could arrange old stray kale leaves and the molding onion to make an abstract picture. That would be using what I found to make art. But can the cleaning itself be the art? Can art be cleaning?
                In the next week, I want to pay attention to the “least art” parts of my life. I want to be inside those moments. To trust them, as though their activities might be in themselves art. This morning I started with the patterned music of the shower all around me. Later I got busy, lost in trying to do too much. Now I’m coming back. Unless I didn’t go away: what about the hectic-ness, the trying and feeling stuck—what composition waits in that?

321: “Shapes and Scenes and Colors” (Taslima Nasrin)

                “After she was enlightened and therefore wished to see
                the world’s shapes and scenes and colors,
                she wanted to step out over the threshold […].”
                -Taslima Nasrin, “Boundary”

                A few days ago there was a little branch on the road. I picked it up, felt the little ridges where it had grown leaves. Felt how the wind washed around it when I waved it back and forth. Whenever I lie down, there’s always something beneath me—a hard wood floor, or soft grass. Or goose poop quishing into my shirt. Tonight I heard my students tell stories: about their childhoods and their children, about the lakes they’d swum in and the words they couldn’t understand. Just now there’s someone walking by outside on the street, singing. The tree frogs are singing too.
                I love the idea that enlightenment comes with a wish to see the world’s shapes and scenes and colors. Learning, for me, doesn’t aim primarily at understanding. My goal isn’t to wrap my intellectual arms around something, to get a firm grip on it. As that thought grew in my head over the last year, I’ve been wondering: what does my learning hope for instead? Where do I hope to be going?  Tonight, reading Nasrin, I think maybe my learning hopes to get a little closer. To be part of a circle as someone looks up, letting the next word of their story come to them, and then to listen. To walk home afterward beneath rustling leaves, and hear my neighbor and the treefrogs sing.

320: Dance and “People’s Lives” (Liz Lerman)

                “I believe dance historically was an incredibly major part of the people’s lives. Take a look at what’s happened to dance in most Western countries: what you find is a mirror of fragmentation…You’ve robbed danced of its therapeutic qualities, its community, social qualities…” -dancer/choreographer Liz Lerman, as quoted in Arlene Goldbard’s New Creative Community

                I really like dancing. It also freaks me out; I get so self conscious, so worried that dancing is grace and grace is something other people have and I don’t. A few days ago I was talking with someone about going to an (outdoor) dance here in Illinois. When I said I wanted to, but it scared me, they looked surprised: “But we’ve already danced in my kitchen.”
                In my head that didn’t count. I think there’s a lot of this it didn’t count going around, and there’s a specific kind surrounding the art we do. I was talking to a student a few weeks ago, and she said she loved to dance with her kids. In the kitchen, in the livingroom, to music or to the sound of their feet. She also said she wasn’t a dancer. Dancers got paid for it, or else they’d studied; they knew something. What she does didn’t count. After class she hung back to talk some more. Now that she was looking at her measuring sticks, she didn’t like how she measured. She wanted to sit with them, to sit with more of what she actually did, and to feel out new ways of measuring.
                There are lots of jokes about this floating around online, like the one where an art teacher tells her toddler “I teach people how to draw” and the toddler says, surprised, “They forget?” A few weeks ago, for the first time in a year, I drew something. Before I left California I sat on the floor and played harmonica with my brother. I don’t think I’m asking if I’m a sketch artist or a musician. I’m just wanting to remember that it counts. 

319: “Engaged With You” (John O’Neal)

                “When things are written down we have a tendency to treat them as more final than they need to be. […] If you, dear reader, were sitting here I wouldn’t be bent into the computer keyboard staring at the screen typing or editing what I’ve already written. I would be engaged with you…”
                -John O’Neal, “Story Circle Process Discussion Paper”

                What with the pandemic and being so isolated, and with spending so much time in writing, I think I’m trying to layer back in all the shades that go into experience. Right now I’m trying to put these words together. I’m also lying down on the couch in my apartment. Outside the leaves are swinging. Watching them it’s almost like I can hear their rustling, and now I went outside for a moment to actually listen. The sound of them is like cloth, like smooth felt all through the air. I could almost run my fingers across that sound.
                What I mean to say is, while writing is a place we meet (and for me an important one), I want to sit with how writing weaves through all the other strands of meeting and saying hello. I’d like to sit outside with you. I’d like to watch your face while you talk and forget what you’re saying, and then end up quiet for a little while until we start noticing all the other things we can hear.
                And of course, I can do all that. We can share all those wonderful parts of communicating and listening and being together that aren’t just communicating and listening to words. Earlier today I went for a walk with a friend. We nodded this way or that, deciding our turns. Right now I’m trying to blur the edges, to wonder how writing with its clever knots and threads can get close to the smooth felt of the leaves rustling or a walk down brick sidewalks. I’m wondering how the abstract—the recorded, symbolic—can participate in the particular, the embodied, the enchanted. I think they can support each other. To put it another way: maybe this, these words, can be a metronome while we practice a song.

318: “Heart-Shaped Leaves” (Alice Brandon)

                “Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa): Large, heart-shaped leaves [and] Long distinctive seed pods (“big green bean”) […]”
                -Alice Brandon, “Tree & Shrub Identification”

                In the last weeks I’ve started recognizing catalpa trees and purple coneflowers, and now whenever I walk I see them. Bursts of purple blooms grow on the corner near my apartment, and in my friend’s front yard. And in so many fields. Catalpas hang their characteristic “big green beans” like thin magic lanterns over the sidewalk. Each time I see one it’s like saying hello.
                There are a few ways I’ve thought of playing with these moments for a post. For instance, I’ve “meant” to recognize more plants for years, and something funny happened when I stopped “meaning” to and instead saw this burst of purple, this hang of heady green. There’s also something curious about which plants I’m learning: when I was in Oklahoma, I thought, well should I learn these? I won’t be here long. When I got to Illinois I thought the same thing. If I’m going to learn trees, which trees, where?
                Here, I think. I’ve walked underneath a catalpa almost every day. There are purple coneflowers twenty-two steps from where I’m sitting.
                I like those thoughts, but they’re not quite what I want to say. I want to say: look. I want to say that tree has seedpods like tall candles, waiting to be lit, or maybe they’re already lit and they shine photosynthesis and oxygen and saplings instead of candle flames. And they make me grin. And then I want watch them a moment, maybe with you, and say hello.

317: “A Paper Boat” (Sapardi Djoko Damono)

“When you were a child you made a paper boat and sailed it
on the river shore; the stream flowed gently, and
your boat swayed its way towards the ocean.”
                -Sapardi Djoko Damono, from “Paper Boat” (trans. Hasif Amini & the author)

                When I started writing Uproar, I often felt like I had a contained thought to share. Or at least something resembling a contained thought: I’d read someone’s bright insight, and I wanted to chase it for a paragraph or two. For the last weeks its felt different. Instead of having a specific “something” to say, a what if this or what if that, I find myself more curious (and sometimes overwhelmed) by the wash of all these different somethings coming together.
                Your boat swayed its way towards the ocean.
                That change I’m describing sometimes feels frustrating, but it’s also one of my favorite parts of this project. I’ve been thinking about how I approach myself, how I go closer to my emotions and experiences. I think I often try to “understand” them. If I’ve made a paper boat and set it on the river, then I often try to understand how I folded the boat (and how I might have folded it better), and where in the river to put it (so to catch the current). I try to throw my mind way up above the river, so I can look down and chart the course this boat will take. I try to see the whole picture. In all of that there’s a lot of planning, a lot of directing, a lot of assessing. There’s a lot of attention as a microscope or a telescope, “getting things right,” pinning them down with light.
                The stream flowed gently, and your boat swayed.
                I’ve done that so much that sometimes I’ve started to believe that looking and directing were the only ways to interact with my paper boat. But they aren’t. Reading Damono, I can see the boat and the river for a moment. The little thing I’ve made, and the world around it. If I remember the boat’s on its way toward the ocean, I’m less worried about how many miles that might be. If I’m knee deep in the water, watching the boat sway on the currents, I’m less worried that they’re taking the boat away. Maybe going out can be a kind of coming back. I’ve had that thought before, but watching my paper boat on the river it stops being a thought and becomes a place I stand in for a moment.

316: Silence and Sing (Khalil Gibran)

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.”
                -Khalil Gibran, “On Death”

                Earlier tonight, a friend told me, “It does make me sad sometimes that I don’t seem able to talk about silence. That I can’t say very much about something that’s so important to me.” I asked them if they wanted to spend more time talking about it, and so try to develop language, or if they wanted to embrace silence as a way of knowing apart from words.
“Both,” they said. We laughed. It’s so often both. We sat outside beneath a string of bistro lights.
I have been feeling quiet lately. Like sitting with the moment before a leaf falls, fluttering. I’ve also been feeling loud. Talkative. I’m trying to focus on building community. On finding and being part of a web of people who support each other. While staying safe with COVID, I want to make the time and space to meet new friends, invite them out to do things, say yes when I’m invited. I’ve also noticed when I’ve been talking and thought, huh. I’ve thought, that’s not what I meant. I wanted—I want—what do I want? The being together, after so much time apart?
I love Gibran’s cycles. Singing comes after we’ve drunk from the river of silence. After we sing, I think, we can go back for another drink. Usually, when I feel out of touch with silence, I’ll try to push myself “one way” or “the other.” I try to drown out the silence by listening to something, or else try to enforce it by ordering myself to sit wordless for however long. As though there are only two, and we stand on one side or the other. As though the river has no sound. 

                My friend and I sat beneath a line of bistro lights. They swung a little in the wind, and behind them lay dark sky. In that there was so much—more than two, more than three; as much as a changing current—of what I wanted.