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.

315: The Children We Are (Janice Harrington)


“This the room he painted to cradle the boy he was.
The painter’s step, the sleepers think, is the floor settling.
His breath against their skin, they think a draft or the night’s cold.”
                -Janice Harrington, “Topoanalysis,” in response to Horace Pippin’s painting Asleep 

                Sometimes I think we’re all still children. And toddlers, and infants, I suppose, and adults. Part of me is still knee deep in a pond in the early ‘90s, watching the pollywogs wiggle, swept up in the fullness of life that isn’t mine, and part of me is the child a week later, bored by the polliwogs my parents let me catch. Part of me is the child kneeling by the fishtank sometime after that, wondering how I missed the moment when they got legs. Breathless at their transformation into something familiar and new.
                In “Topoanalysis,” Janice Harrington shows us a painter, Horace Pippin, as he goes back through two world wars (one of which he fought in) and five decades to the room where he was a boy. She lets the painter walk through that room, step on that floor, see that child. She watches Horace Pippin paint a room “to cradle the boy he was.”
                And I realize I’m still so many children. So many kids with skinned knees who can’t explain that it hurts, and kids who feel smothered, and kids who learned too early that hugging isn’t cool. And I’m supported, loved children, too: children snuggled up to hear stories, children exploring the creek, children gathering magic stones. Harrington suggests these places don’t need to stay locked in the past. They aren’t from some other world. Like her painter, we can go there, and cradle the children we are.

314: “Made, Like Bread” (Ursula Le Guin)

                “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” -Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

                This morning I woke up in Illinois. Most of yesterday I spent traveling across the country, bouncing through flight delays and missed connections. It was the kind of trip that could have been really frustrating, but it wasn’t. When we could fly, I looked out the window at seas of cloud. In the airport, I texted with friends and family. I thought back over the summer that’s gone so quickly.
                By lots of measures, I didn’t do “the work” I had planned for this summer. I didn’t rewrite that much of my book. I didn’t finish my PhD applications for this fall. I did wash a lot of dishes, though. I woke up early and ate an apple while my mom made her tea. I walked with my dad. I stood on the bluffs by the ocean as my younger brother flew his drone out along the cliffs, making me think about them, see them, in ways I never had. I cooked with my older brother. Talked with him. I played a lot with my nieces: we were bears and marmots, dragons and pangolins and witches and family. Le Guin reminds me what I was doing: love. Mixing the dough of it, standing close while it rose. It’s wonderful “work,” my favorite of all the kinds I know. I’m glad for Le Guin reminding me to keep baking so love’s made new. I’m glad for the summer, and so glad for the time with my family.

313: “No Answer To It” (John Colburn)

                “Well, death is normal. It’s not pathological. There is no answer to it. It’s not a problem to solve.” -John Colburn, “The Western Story” (published in Ninth Letter)

                One night, a week ago, I lay in bed and felt pretty sad. And I’d like to sit with that, give myself a chance to feel it, but laying and watching the fog roll in, it was also lovely to let it be. To realize my sadness didn’t need an answer.
                It’s so easy to lash out instead. When I was ten or eleven, my friend and I wrestled for a book we both wanted and ended up tearing the thing in half. The first thing I said was something like, “You did it.” I was sad. Worried. Embarrassed. Books were something you treated with respect, and this one wasn’t mine. I was also angry, and ready to be indignant, as though someone had done this to me. As though this was someone’s fault and something should be done. Then I wouldn’t have to be sitting there, holding half a book, feeling bad. Maybe the book would even be whole.
                At thirteen, when I cut my foot with a crowbar, I didn’t get angry. I’m not sure why. I remember looking at the gash in my skin and thinking, “That’s going to bleed.” A moment later it was. I called my brother and he helped me with bandages. What helped me, right then, to see my hurt and accept it?
                It’s not a problem to solve. One night, a week ago, I lay in bed and felt really sad. That night I also saw a satellite. That night it got cold, even out here in warm California, and I got to burrow into my blankets. The next morning I woke up to my nieces laughing as they went to feed the dog. Lovely, really, and maybe so much of it doesn’t need an answer.

312: “We Knew Its Name” (Peter Sipeli and Luis Camnitzer)

                “Born inside the womb of this warm earth, birthed by rivers older than memory, once realize we knew its name, we knew its rhythms and its corners, we know its leaf skin and the poetry of its language…” -Peter Sipeli in “The Sleeping Ancestors” (a little after minute 8:20)

                “The history of both art and design is a history extracted from the purposes for which the objects were created.” -Luis Camnitzer, One Number Is Worth One Word

                Hearing Sipeli reading for the first time was like standing on the shore, only to realize the waves had already washed up around me, only to realize I was already out at sea, beneath the sea, and I could breathe. It was wonderful. And I realize I’ve had similar experiences before: when running with my nieces or tasting a sip of cold water, when feeling leaves beneath my fingers or frost beneath my feet. I’ve had similar experiences, sometimes, in talking to an old friend or starting to talk with a new one. In hearing poetry. In hearing stories. And other times, I somehow forget these moments happen.
                Camnitzer says that we remove art history from the purposes that inspired the creation of that art. We remove our understanding, our narrative definition, from the lift the seed had in becoming a seedling. So I don’t have a thought today. No explanations. Just a moment, and a question. A moment: last night, lying half asleep outside, I saw a satellite. A bit of metal some humans made and sent up, as though we were trying to touch the stars, as though we were realizing how wide the sky really was. I watched that point of light. A question: today, or in the last few days, what was it that woke up for you? What came from old rivers, what whispered a poetry of language—what did you feel? I’d love to share, or hear.
                The first word in that section of Sipeli’s poem is “Us.” He repeats it. Us, realizing we know these rhythms.