“There's a kind of thinking that happens through the act of moving.” -Natalia Espinel, Colombian artist and educator I'm collaborating with Natalia Espinel, and we're playing with “invitations” toward different embodiment movements. Nothing is “supposed” to happen if you try these invitations—we hope instead that the movements become something for you as you do them. Here’s one of our invitations, if you would like to try. “Changing the Vertical for the Horizontal” We are so often sitting, straight up, holding ourselves tight. The floor is always calling us. Gravity. Going to the floor is a kind of surrender. Perhaps you will move there, now, slowly and mindfully. Lay on your back, arms at your sides, feet a foot or so below your hips. Relax. Breath by breath, relax Your feet, your neck, your shoulders. Your arms, your lips, your mind. When you are deeply relaxed, perhaps you will return to other movements, When you are disconnected from your body, perhaps you will return to the floor. A meditation, after we’ve tried: For us, the vertical is related to control. It is like focusing intently with your eyes. It is part of the construction of power, of ableness, of intentional arrangement of yourself and the other. It feels connected to the hierarchies woven through those constructions, and the hierarchy of dividing life into work/rest, worthy/unworthy, of building “achievement” from opportunity from presence. The horizontal releases control. It is like awakening to peripheral vision, to the unconscious, to a sensorial relation to the world. Instead of holding ourselves above we surrender into. Now that we have surrendered to the floor—what now? ¿Ahora que nos entregamos al piso, ahora que?
“To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.” – Georgia O’Keeffe
One of my friends draws. She makes it look like magic. A few weeks ago I watched her coax a few drops of water from the cap of her water bottle onto the page, and then dip her pen into those drops, pulling them out into a beautiful watery flower. She told me today, “That was just because the pen was dry.” I’m not sure I believe her. It was because her pen was dry, and she had a water bottle, and she knew (or wondered) how the color and water would mix.
We’re in class together, so I’ve gotten to see her draw almost every week since August. A few months ago I started following along. When she took out her pencils or crayons or pens, she’d put them between us. I’d watch the ways she played with lines, patterns, colors. A few years ago I tried to practice drawing once a week. I picked an object, a bike, a teddy bear, and tried to sketch it. Other than that I haven’t drawn a lot since I was a kid. Following along with my friend, there wasn’t as much practice, if that means concerted effort toward a goal. There was more of a practice, a dipping of the pen’s tip into the water. A pulling, week after week, of colors across the page. It’s not that I didn’t struggle and get confused. I did. But there was a heartbeat to the work. Like each question was a breath, and as I worked next to her, breathing in led to breathing out led to breathing in again. That reminds me that courage is connected to heart. That inspiration is connected to breath, simple breaths above a page while we talk and draw.
“I think the kind of landscape that you grew up in, it lives with you. I don’t think it’s true of people who’ve grown up in cities so much; you may love a building, but I don’t think that you can love it in the way that you love a tree or a river or the colour of the earth; it’s a different kind of love.” -Arundhati Roy
I think love, for me, usually includes an embrace of a so much beyond my control. Landscapes are wonderful at reminding me how rich and complex and interwoven all those beyonds really are. Continents drifting and hills weathering away; moles digging and ants following their pheromone scents; trees dancing; a sparrow weaving through the branches. Look, look, look. Or run your hand over the tree’s bark, and feel. Or listen to the creek gathering. There’s a moment when I stop wondering what to do with all this. When I sit at the foot of a free and feel all this swirling apart, brown leaves blowing, and swirling together.
For me that’s a nice reminder about loving people, too. I spent last night with several dear friends and a few friends I know less well. There were moments of hilarious laughter, moments of connection, and moments when I tried to figure out how I fit next to this person I just haven’t talked to that much. Maybe fit is a funny term. Maybe you fit in a landscape, but you also run across it, sit inside it, are awed by it. I think I love the unknowing. The swirl at the edge of me and you and this, and that interweaving current is such a big part of the so much I’m thankful for.
“I don’t understand why people think you’ll have a poem after you sit down to write a poem. You don’t get fine after one trip to the gym. […] when you miss you just miss.”
-Jericho Brown, poet, in a discussion at UIUC
I’m sitting at a table I’ve never sat at in a building I’ve never been to before. That doesn’t happen very much these days, not with COVID. And in another way maybe that happens all the time.
For the last couple years I’ve been giving up the idea of a method. I used to think there was a specific way forward, a specific way to balance chores and friendships, work and dancing along through autumn leaves. Once I found that one way I would just do that, that method, day after day. And it would keep working. I don’t think the world’s like that. The situation’s changing everyday, I’m changing every day. Sweeping the floor today because yesterday I had to sweep up after spilling lentils everywhere doesn’t make a lot of sense. Being present to what is, moving with that is—that seems to work. There isn’t one method to repeat and repeat. There are moments to meet.
And then when I feel like I’m learning something I realize how mixed up I still am. My mix-up’s in that phrase I just used—“seems to work.” It’s in Jericho Brown’s big grin: “I don’t understand why people think you’ll have a poem after you sit down to write a poem.” I was holding onto the idea that if I let go of my method I would get where I was aiming. Again and again, whenever I wanted, I would get there. And I don’t think it works like that. Being open to what is, to what’s moving, means being open to moving in different directions than I expected. Sometimes I sit down to write a poem and end up lost in thought about a friend. Sometimes I sit down and struggle and struggle with words that don’t mean much. I like the sitting down. I like getting lost in remembering a friend, too. And the struggle.
When you miss you just miss. Maybe that’s not a problem. Skipping a rock across the river doesn’t mean you’ll hit the other side. It means there’s a rock, and water, and air, and for a moment you spin through them in another place you’ve never been.
“Real places are never captured in words. There is always more.”
-Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea
Lately I’ve been thinking about place. Or feeling place. Right now I’m in the foyer of Flagg Hall at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and outside the trees are green and yellow, orange and red. The sky is glowing like the inside of an abalone shell. This morning was foggy, close, the buildings a block ahead appearing slowly. The fog’s lifting now. The foyer’s vents hum and the mosaiced floor is cold, smooth.
I think everything that goes on inside me—my hurts and hopes, confusions and joys and connections, my questions and curiosities—is more related to specific places than I usually realize. Yesterday afternoon, feeling overwhelmed was also feeling disconnected from the room I was in. A walk outside, a nod to my neighbor as we passed at the place where tree roots have broken through the sidewalk, and I felt closer. I would have said, before going on the walk, maybe I need to rest. And maybe I did. But I think I was also fumbling toward place. I was trying to be where I was.
Real places are never captured in words. There is always more. Yes. I think that’s true. Maybe it’s also true that we are never found, never settled into ourselves, without places. To be is to be somewhere. The more is not just a reaching out or an adding in. I don’t get there by mentioning the bench in the foyer that I’m using as a desk, or the brick buildings outside with climbing ivy. (The ivy brightens: green to pale green to yellow to red). There is always more, and some of it is a weaving together. Outward and inward, place and mind, until those don’t make sense as opposites.
“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
-Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
I’ve taught a lot of classes in writing poetry. I’ve heard a lot of student poetry read out loud, and commented on it, and read it out loud myself when the writer wanted to hear it in someone else’s voice. Five or six years ago, one of my high school students asked, “Do you really want to read all this teenage poetry?” The question surprised me. I’d never really asked myself that before. And then, there in my thoughts, was an answer. Yes.
Not always of course. Sometimes on a Sunday night, when I still had a stack of packets to comment on, I didn’t want to read anymore. But mostly, yes. That moment came back to me today during a conversation about art and culture, about Netflix and poetry and how we interact with the big, slow turning ship that is our society’s way of understanding what’s true, what’s important, what we should move toward. It seems like Marvel has such a big microphone when it comes to saying, this is how you hero. And it does. But the thing is, there’s not one ship. There are so many different conversation, so many different people involved in figuring out how to understand our experience. There are kayaks and sailboats, rafts and canoes and people swimming. There are beaches and kelp beds and krill. I love hearing poetry and not asking, is that good. I love listening for how people find themselves, and build themselves, and share themselves.
I might not like stories as much as Eudora Welty. For me, it’s less about a mouse coming out of a hole. Less about a story that is something on its own. It’s more about the mouse, and the wall, and the building, and all the other mice in the attic, and the birds up on the roof. It’s about the wonderful chance to listen to all of them, and some of them, one by one and together.
“I am this body and the leaves I see
blown from the brassy cottonwoods
Beside the road.”
-Ursula Le Guin, “The Body of the World”
In the last months, as part of an Art Education grad seminar I’m taking, I’ve been making up activities. For most of my time as a student I’ve written responses: words to help muddle through what I’m learning, to hold onto an idea or unpack it. It’s been wonderful to try this other approach, to use words as an invitation toward an experience. A place to stand.
Today I wanted to share one of these activities. This one (like lots of them) might be about coming back to my body. It might be about feeling the vibration of the sound that makes words. It’s definitely about whatever happens when you try it, if you decide to. The first time I tried this I ended up hanging words of joy on the leaves outside my classroom. I can’t tell you what the words said. You’ll see why.
Activity: In Your Hands
Find a partner. Ask yourselves, what’s one thing you need to say in this moment? Think about it, but don’t write it down. When you have it, whisper that something into your hands. Carry it outside and do something that feels right with the words you’re holding—you can throw them into the sky, or tuck them down like seeds into the ground, or eat them, or anything else. Don’t plan what you’re going to do with them: go outside and discover it. Then go back to your partner. Don’t share what you said. The words are still here, though what if instead of speaking them we let them live where they are?
“Self-expression sometimes requires other people. Becoming ourselves is a collective journey.” -Alok Vaid-Menon, Beyond the Gender Binary
Lately, when I’m having a hard time, I’ve been trying to either drown out the trouble by staying busy around friends, or to sit alone in my apartment and figure it out so I can be okay on my own. Which means it’s a great relief to see Alok point out how silly I’m being.
I miss dancing. I miss the movement that wasn’t only mine, the momentum that carried me because I was sharing it with someone else who was sharing it with me. I was never a very good dancer, but my teachers got me to believe that didn’t really matter. Dancing, one told me, was being at home in your body. Dancing, another told me, was being alive together. So now I’m imagining the tension of holding hands with someone as we lean apart, my weight resting against the pull of their weight. Take either of us out of that picture, and of course the other person falls down. And thinking about that, holding the weight of all that’s holding me, I wonder if almost everything I do is dancing.
“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.
“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.