369: “Their Tastes” (Mary Robinette Kowal)

                “My habit, when I take on a new client, is to learn what I can of them, so that I can tailor my offerings to their tastes.” -Mary Robinette Kowal, Forest of Memory

                When I was a kid someone told me that when you keep snacking and snacking and still feeling hungry, you’re probably thirsty. I remember thinking about that. Sometimes it worked: I’d drink a glass of water and that would seem, ahh, like what I wanted. Sometimes it didn’t. I also ate because I was bored. I ate because people around me were eating. I ate for the joy of it, the potato chip crunch, the crisp apple kiss, the sweet mumble of ice cream. For other wonderful reasons. I’m snacking while I write this. But still, when I was reading Forest of Memory, that moment came back—maybe because it was an early experience when knowing what I wanted felt all muddled up.
                I wonder what you want, in reading this. Why you’re here. Mary Kowal’s hero starts the novella by wondering that in specifically economic, transactional terms. What am I selling you? I wonder that, too. On Monday I’ll start teaching a new University course, and it’s expensive to be in that classroom. What do my students want? What can I offer? Beyond the insistent (insidious?) capitalism of that framing, there’s also this idea that I know. That I know what I’m seeking, and you could tailor your offerings to my tastes. Sitting here tonight, I’m struck by how little that describes my actual experience. I go for a walk and sometimes realize I want to be on my hands and knees, picking up ginkgo biloba fruit (and then realizing how hard it is to wash that stuff off. Not sure I wanted that part). I want to be left alone and then, when I’m left alone, I so don’t want to be left alone. I want to be out meeting people and then sometimes I’m overwhelmed. I suppose in an overarching way I want to be connected, to engage, to live in community, but in particular my wants aren’t clean lines and preferences. They’re more fluttering leaves and flowers and twigs from dozens of different plants, growing together in the corner of an abandoned lot. And I realize I like that. I don’t know what I want you to offer. I don’t want to say give me this. I guess I wonder, How are you? What’s going on? What’s here?

368: “Ocean” and “Foam” (Khalil Gibran)

“You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link.
This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link.
To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of ocean by the frailty of its foam.”
-Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

                Today I worked for a long time on my book, and finished moving out of my old apartment, and scratched a dog’s chin, and ate a breakfast my partner made for me, and walked through floods of warm August light and cool August shadow, and got sweaty, and lounged on the couch, cool, and met with a professor about different kinds of research, and washed some laundry, and stayed out talking with new friends. I think, for my part, that I want to let go of the language of weakest and strongest. In some ways I suppose my novel (I’m almost done with the eighth draft!) is an ongoing project and laundry, for example, isn’t. But in other ways the wash of water and the rinse of suds is in the book. In other ways, again, the book is about returning to my body and to the wash of water and the rinse of suds. Any hierarchy there seems like a perspective that will pick out some characteristics and obscure others, like saying a screw is more its shape than its metal (or more its metal than its shape).
                At the same time, if I am going to say weakest link, I want to remember Gibran and say strongest, too. A couple people have mentioned to me the week I “lost” while recovering from COVID. I understand what they mean. I’ve stumbled into that language sometimes, too. But that judgment of lost seems so strange when I stop and look at it. It was a week of feeling my community reach out to support me. A week of hot tea. A week of a quiet room’s quiet hum. A week, yes, of coughing and coughing until my sides ached. If I’m going to pick pieces and say they stand in for wholes (like we do when we say, “So that’s what you really think of me,” or when we say, “In the end the project didn’t pan out”), I want to see the foam and the ocean. The wave and the wind. The kid playing with their toes in the shallow surf and the vast schools of fish glimmering. A lost week, a found week, a week playing hide and seek, and who knows what else besides.

367: “The Movement / Is Not Separate” (Rumi)

“The movement of your finger
Is not separate from your finger.
Observe the wonders as they occur around you. 
Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry
moving through, and be silent.”
-Rumi, from “Body Intelligence” (trans. Coleman Barks)

                A little more than a week ago—last Wednesday morning—I told my partner, “I need to do less, but I’m not not sure how.” I felt tired. Rundown. But there were so many projects that were still unfinished. A few hours later I tested positive for COVID, and the last week I’ve been in bed isolating. I’m lucky to not have a serious case, and to have the chance to hunker down and a place to do it.. I’ve also been sicker than I’ve been in years and years. My thoughts have been sluggish and slow. Concentrating is hard. The fridge hums in the other room. I pull the blankets off me, too hot, and pull them back, too cold. I breathe steam in a hot shower.
                Last Wednesday, the Wednesday I tested positive, I was still determined to write an Uproar post. “I’ve written one for 365 straight weeks!” I told myself. “I can’t miss one.” I told myself, I need to do less, but I’m not sure how. Then a virus I breathed in somewhere put me in bed for days. If the movement of my finger is not separate from my finger, maybe the stillness of my finger is also not separate from my finger. If there’s running there’s also resting. Doing something for 365 straight weeks might be a reason to keep doing it, but it’s also a reason to pause, to lay down, to breathe. 
                I think Uproar #366 is something. It’s an inhalation. A pause. Be silent. It’s listening to the refrigerator while I realize that laying here is part of these wonders, just like moving. Silence, just like song. And this is 377. I trace my fingers over the weave of a blanket. I feel the threads and try not to claim them. How much of poetry is the love sound has for silence, the love silence has for sound?

365: “Something That Incorporates Everything” (Becky Chambers)

                “Eyas sipped her drink. ‘You’ve found something that incorporates everything else you tried.’” -Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few

                A few days ago I went to my friend’s house to learn about making woodblock prints. Along the way we talked about music, video games, gardens, seasons, career paths, how lovely it is to go wandering off the path, mead, cooking, and dark-eyed juncos. Our conversation left our two glasses on the window sill, catching light, and wood shavings scattered across the floor.
                The block printing itself was not only ‘itself.’ We also sawed our blocks, and sanded them, which meant sitting outside for a while in the shade, and sharpened the chisels. At one point my friend said something like, “I like tasks that are so involved.” Printing that involves carving that involves sharpening that involves looking at references on our phones, sanding, sawing, and our two glasses on the windowsill.
                In Record of a Spaceborn Few, Eyas is talking about careers. Or vocations, I suppose— her culture practices an extensive version of universal basic income, so people work largely for a sense of giving back. (At one point a character says something like, ‘What do you do?’ becomes a way of asking ‘what do you do for everyone else?’) Eyas is talking about what her friend does. He sees all his different fits and starts and ideas as separate. Eyas sees them as coming together in what he does now. There are certainly moments in my life—emotionally overwhelmed while driving, but I just have to watch the road; an upset student, and I’m upset too, but I’m trying not to let my upset direct my response—where my life seems to turn toward a kind of separating, compartmentalizing. I think those moments are important. And as a way of thinking about who I am and what I’m doing, I like the idea of involves. Of incorporating all my different confusions and fears, my talents and practices, my curiosities and silliness into the kind of work that takes me outside and inside and outside again, with our water glasses on the windowsill.

364: “A Still Point…Ceaseless” (Emily St. John Mandel)

                “I’ve been thinking a great deal about time and motion lately, about being a still point in the ceaseless rush.” -Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility

                I’m writing this on a plane. It’s 6:41, or at least, we’d say it was 6:41 on the West Coast where I woke up this morning, and we’d say it was 8:41 in the Midwest where I’ll be landing in half an hour or so. There’s a different kind of tired, a different kind of out-of-place, that I sometimes feel while traveling. I often plan to get things done on a flight. Usually I end up sitting, listening to an audiobook, staring out the window if I’m lucky enough to have a window seat, feeling the engines thrum if I’m sitting somewhere else. Sometimes there’s a little shake, and it’s hard to imagine that’s the wings shaking, that’s the sky shaking, all around us.
                Yesterday, on my last full day visiting my brother and my nieces, we all went kayaking on a beautiful, calm stretch of river. I remember I used to hate paddling over flat water. Well, not hate—I guess I disliked paddling over flat water about the same time when I used “I hate” to mean “I’m not really into.” Say twelve or thirteen, which is also when I didn’t really get going for a walk with no destination. If you just move a little bit and then come back, I thought, then what is it you’re doing? 
                I like walks now. And I really liked the flat water. I liked watching my nieces paddle themselves along, and helping the three year old when she was paddling into the riverbank and the blackberry vines. I also like the current, or the lack of the current, so quiet beneath us it felt like we were balanced between moving. A little like I feel now, of course. Like a ball that isn’t rolling. Like the moment between breathing in and breathing out.
                Now the pilot says we’re starting our descent. Outside the clouds are thickening. The moon hangs. I’ll be back in my apartment soon, unpack my suitcase. I’m excited for that. I rest down into the seat. I want more of my family in my life, and more flat water. The sky and the trees and the reflection of the sky and the trees, and my fingers trailing through the river.

363: Poplar Leaves (A Raccoon)

                A few days ago, outside my brother’s house in Washington, I sat a while with a raccoon. At first the raccoon surprised me. I went out for a soccer ball my niece had kicked by the fence, and looked up to see something, quick and big, coming down along a branch. It went from the branch to the trunk, and then climbed up. Smooth movements. Clever hands. A rump without a tail, which made me wonder a minute, which made me guess. Then from twenty feet up it paused and stared at me. Calm eyes. Ready for a long wait.
                I wanted to sit with the raccoon, but I didn’t want to scare it, and I thought standing there and staring might make it uncomfortable. So I came inside. Then a story came to me from one of my friends, something about a famous author (I don’t remember who) who said he didn’t think humans could have any real enduring connection with cats. Telling the story, my friend commented, “I know he lived with a cat, but I listen to him, and I wonder if he ever really just spent time with the cat.” My friend has spent a lot of time with their own cat, Simon. They’ve noticed a lot of Simon’s habits. They know a lot of the movements that mean back off, or more gently, some space, please. A different friend once asked me, “What animals that are not pets have you really sat with?”
                So I went back outside. I stood on the far side of the yard. The raccoon watched me. I watched them a little, but tried not to lock my eyes on them. I’ve heard sustained eye contact can often be read as a threat (is that true of raccoons?). I noticed the clouds, high and soft. I wondered what kind of tree the raccoon was in, and what the little fruits were they had been eating. I wondered where they slept. I noticed the breathing of the wind through the poplar leaves. I felt the grass. At a certain point I found myself scratching my cheek, and looked over to see the raccoon, grooming their side. 
                There’s something in this moment that highlights for me how much I don’t know. There’s also a spaciousness, a peace. There are two eyes looking out through the leaves at my two eyes. I’m going to spend more time in the yard in case this raccoon stops by again.

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
and memories keep flooding by
they show me a senseless
a voracious
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.