“I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude
over every last thing, including you, which, yes, awkward,
the suds in your ear and armpit […]”
-Ross Gay, from “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude”
“This rider of winds, how awkward he is, and weak!
How droll he seems, who lately was all grace!”
-Charles Baudelaire, from “The Albatross” [trans. Richard Wilbur]
Seven or eight years ago, while teaching high school, I came up with a pet theory: maybe awkward wasn’t really a thing. Making friends takes emotional effort. Moving through a group, or a romance, takes emotional work. Maybe “awkward” is what we say when we’re afraid we don’t know how to make that effort, or when it feels too hard.
Last month I helped move some heavy bookshelves out of my brother’s house. Shuffling along, backwards, trying not to scrape the top on the door or the bottom on the floor, my knees and toes knocking into the side, I thought about awkward. Following Baudelaire, maybe awkward is when our messiness shows, our not-good-at-this. We’re so used to trying to broadcast our talent. Understood that way, awkward is a kind of failing: if we had a dolly, or I was better at lifting things, we’d’ve danced those shelves along with grace and aplomb. understood that way, I can try to be better, or else stick to where I “fit.” Up in the sky, the albatross is a “rider of winds.” It’s only down here walking that he looks so weak.
But then there’s Gay, and his awkward is part of the rush of his gratitude. It’s the silliness of bouncing knees when I’m running or the jumble of knees when I trip, it’s the way I spit (like he spits) when he gets really excited in talking. It’s the goofy ways we grin at each other. It’s not something to be avoided, because the truth is, fumbling along and bouncing into things and trying, I really liked helping to move that bookshelf.